Your Toothache Could Be Hurting Your Health
While most children were playing and visiting friends and relatives during the Idul Fitri holiday, Rendra Herlambang was curled up in pain.
The 10-year-old was cooped up in his home in Warung Buncit, South Jakarta, nursing a swollen gum. His parents couldn’t find a dentist during the holiday, so they gave him over-the-counter painkillers to soothe the pain.
“After taking the [painkiller], he could sleep for an hour or two,” said Ami, his mother. “But, after a couple of hours, when the medication wore off, he’d be awakened by shooting pains and start crying.”
According to Zaura Anggraeni, chairwoman of the Indonesian Dental Association (PDGI), a majority of Indonesians can empathize with Rendra.
“According to the 2007 Riskesdas [Basic Health Research by the Ministry of Health], 72 percent of the total population in Indonesia, or about 150 million Indonesians, have dental cavities,” Zaura said. “This is a sad and worrying fact.”
In rare cases, cavities can lead to serious health risks such as kidney and heart failure.
While there is no data that is more recent, Zaura believes that from 2007 to 2011, the number of people with cavities is likely to have increased significantly because of the widespread lack of awareness about oral hygiene.
“When children get dental cavities, it can greatly impair their growth,” she said. “Most of the energy that children should be using just to grow up will be used to fight their tooth infections.”
A dental cavity is caused by bacteria feeding on remnants of starch and sugar on a tooth — the bacteria turns the sugars into acids, which form holes in the dentin, or body of the tooth.
These holes continue to trap food, allowing bacteria to flourish. As the holes get deeper, the decay will reach the pulp chamber at the center of the tooth that contains nerve endings and blood vessels.
“The white blood cells will fight the bacteria,” Zaura said. “But when the cells lose, they become pus trapped in the pulp chamber. The gum swells and causes shooting pains.”
According to the Riskesdas 2007 data, only 23.6 percent of Indonesians with cavities go to the dentist to seek treatment.
“Most prefer to buy over-the-counter painkillers for their toothaches,” Zaura said. “When the pain subsides and the swelling is gone, they assume the infection is gone.”
But the tooth abscess may have also ruptured, spreading the bacteria to other parts of the body.
“Blood vessels can carry the bacteria anywhere,” Zaura said. “They may infect your lungs and cause them to collapse. They may infect the kidneys and cause them to fail. They may also infect the heart valves and cause them to leak.”
All of these problems are life-threatening, and all of them can be caused by a single cavity.
“The good news is that dental cavities are easily preventable,” said Dr. H. Eky S. Soeria Soemantri, chairman of the Association of Dentistry Schools in Indonesia (AFDOKGI). “A change in lifestyle is all we need.”
First, he said, you should brush your teeth at least twice a day — once in the morning and once at night before bed.
“Most people only brush their teeth once after breakfast before they go to school or work,” Eky said. “But brushing your teeth at night is also necessary. It removes the remaining food on your teeth, which prevents the bacteria from feasting on them when you sleep at night.”
Choose a soft-bristled toothbrush with a tapered and rounded head that can clean the teeth at the back of your mouth properly. Replace it every three months or when it wears out.
Choose toothpastes that contain fluoride, a mineral that helps to harden teeth and prevents decay.
Brushing the right way also counts.
Place the head of your toothbrush against your teeth and then tilt the bristle tips to a 45-degree angle against the gum-line. Move the brush in small circular movements on all surfaces (inner and outer) of each tooth.
Finally, don’t forget to lightly brush your tongue to remove bacteria.
Rinsing with mouthwash after brushing your teeth at night also helps.
“You shouldn’t use mouthwash too often,” Eky said. “There are good and bad bacteria in the mouth. For oral health, both of them should coexist in a good balance.”
To reduce tooth decay, cut down on starchy and sugary food and drinks. Dental floss is also important for cleaning those tricky spaces between teeth that can harbor bacteria.
“Avoid using toothpicks on your teeth,” Eky said. ‘’They may hurt the gums and cause infections.’’
Last but not least, schedule an appointment with your dentist once every six months. With routine check-ups, you can repair minor cavities before they develop into severe infections.
“Take your children to the dentist with you, even when their teeth are OK,” Eky said. “With regular visits, they’ll be familiar with the dentist and his office and won’t dread their next visit.”
Children can also learn proper oral hygiene from the dentist himself.
“Indonesian people should ‘unjuk gigi’ [‘show their teeth’, also a figure of speech meaning ‘show their mettle’],” Eky said. “Let’s improve our dental health and change the statistics.”