DESPITE the virtual explosion of a cosmetic dental industry in the last 10 years and the desire to attain the “perfect smile”, it seems the UK still has a large problem of ill health due to dental problems. Every year our economy loses £100 million in lost work days as a result. With one in 20 of us admitting to never visiting a dentist, it seems dental health is just not a priority for some. According to a YouGov survey it is affecting our children too, with poor education about oral hygiene and how to look after your mouth, resulting in 60,000 missed school days a year.

Oral and dental health is not merely a reflection of the state of our mouths, but our bodies as a whole. For those who want to look after themselves, good oral health is a vital part of this.

The build-up of plaque on teeth is one of the first signs of tooth disease. If untreated, in the short term this can lead to bad breath, often noticed by others. Holes (caries) develop in the teeth, and the gums become inflamed (gingivitis). Bleeding gums can be very painful, and if this progresses the final stage is tooth loss.

However the damage does not stop in the mouth. Inflammation in the gums has been linked with inflammation elsewhere, notably the blood vessels of the heart and brain, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Poor oral hygiene is a risk factor for the development of diabetes, mouth and pancreatic cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). It has even been implicated as a cause of pregnancy related complications, including premature labour and low birth weight babies.

So the message is clear, oral hygiene is not just a dental issue but one that affects the body as a whole.

Looking after your teeth and gums should be a lifelong commitment. Even babies’ teeth should be brushed from the moment they appear. A good personal routine is to brush twice daily, for at least two minutes. There is some evidence that it is easier to get a more thorough clean with an electric toothbrush. The spaces between your teeth also need to be addressed, either with floss or an interdental brush. Many people who have never used these devices before are surprised how much extra material is dislodged when they first use them. A mouthwash may be used to complete the regime.

You should visit your dentist at least yearly.

Many now offer affordable monthly direct debit schemes to cover the cost of treatment.

A good diet is very important. Too much sugary drinks and foods increase the risk of tooth decay. Smoking and excess alcohol are risk factor for this and oral cancer. Persistent dental pain or loose teeth should not be ignored. You should seek medical attention for any new lump, red or white patch or ulcer in your mouth that does not go away within two to three weeks as occasionally this is an oral cancer.