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Germs, Gingivitis, And Why You Should Floss

Updated on September 16, 2015
"Flossing is more important than brushing"
"Flossing is more important than brushing" | Source

Why Floss?

As far back as I can remember, I have been told that I needed to floss, or floss more often, or that if I didn't floss, bad things would happen. Bad things--unthinkable things. Nameless and mysterious things!

However, it was never explained to me WHY I should floss my teeth, or what it really had to do with anything at all. I felt that it was just something the hygienists and dentists said to each patient as a matter of course. They needed to tell you something, after all, and flossing must be the old standby when there was nothing else to say.

Eventually, my hygienist caught some cavities between my upper molars. Once again this "flossing" thing came up, and I was told that if I didn't start flossing, I'd get even more cavities. I figured they knew what they were talking about, but never thought to ask WHY. I began flossing diligently, but blindly. If this would make me have less cavities, then it must be necessary. Necessary, yet so mysterious!

Healthy vs. unhealthy gums
Healthy vs. unhealthy gums | Source

I learned in school that:

  1. Flossing displaces destructive colonies of bacteria in the mouth
  2. Bleeding gums are actually caused by open sores and irritation caused by bacteria
  3. When you don't floss or maintain oral hygiene, these colonies grow and change
  4. When these bacterial colonies are allowed to grow freely without disruption, they eventually cause severe gum disease and contribute to the development of systemic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, lung disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and early death. Source here.

Flossing disrupts Streptococcus mutans bacteria
Flossing disrupts Streptococcus mutans bacteria | Source

1. Flossing displaces destructive colonies of bacteria in the mouth

The mouth is warm and moist, and we all know what that means: bacteria! While some bacteria are beneficial, some are destructive. We'll focus on the potentially destructive here.

Bacteria occur naturally within the mouth. Like many things, they are fine in moderation. But what happens if the colonies are allowed to thrive? We get rampant bacterial growth; they start moving in, building homes (intermicrobial matrices), staying for dinner every night (carbohydrate sugars), and leaving little unwanted presents like toxins and lactic acid. In effect, they "excrete" lactic acid after munching on the foods and sugars between our teeth, and this acid--not the sugar--is what weakens enamel and eventually causes cavities.

These bacterial colonies are commonly known as "plaque," or the newer term "biofilm." It is this biofilm, along with its associated toxins and acids, that will lead to bleeding gums if not disrupted daily. If left untreated, the biofilm eventually turns into tartar (calculus), irritating the gum tissue and potentially causing severe gum disease. In addition, the constant onslaught of acid on the teeth will invariably lead to cavities.

Flossing "disrupts" their colonizing efforts and continuously inhibits their ability to build stable homes (calculus.) However, due to the warm, moist environment that they find themselves in, they re-colonize rapidly; this is why flossing every day is necessary.

A bacterial infection of the gums causes them to bleed
A bacterial infection of the gums causes them to bleed | Source

2. Bleeding gums are actually caused by open sores and irritation

Sometimes, when you do remember to floss, suddenly there is blood everywhere, and you wonder what in the world is going on! Bleeding gums are not normal; in fact, they are an infection of the gum tissue. Effectively, flossing rubs against open sores in the gum tissues, sort of like pulling a scab off of a wound.

The gums are extremely resilient, but they can only withstand so much. When your gums start bleeding, it means that the bacteria have been allowed to survive and thrive for so long that the tissues just can't cope any longer.

The good news is that gingivitis is reversible . A week or two of flossing correctly once a day can completely reverse this cycle, disrupt the bad bacteria, and push gingival disease (gingivitis) back to where it should be: in articles and biology books.

Typical bacteria found in plaque (biofilm)
Typical bacteria found in plaque (biofilm) | Source

3. When you don't floss or maintain oral hygiene, these colonies grow and change

Growth, of course, means that the colonies thrive and expand exponentially. However, what do I mean when I say that they can change?

Well, after a certain threshold has been reached, and when the potentially bad bacteria have been allowed to thrive, something "actually" bad happens. The bacterial environment becomes so rich and so welcoming that new bacteria may now survive and thrive that previously would not be able to do so.

In other words, the original colonies have been there so long that instead of an environment that supports potentially harmful bacteria, the environment now supports harmful bacteria as well. In effect, the chemistry has changed! New things are now possible! The problem is that these new changes are for the worse.

These "new" harmful bacteria can live without oxygen (are anaerobic)--deep in the pockets of the gums. If left untreated for months, this can lead to periodontitis (severe gum disease.)

4. When these bacteria are allowed to grow freely without disruption, they eventually cause severe gum disease & systemic diseases

Bleeding gums are a sign of gingivitis, or mild gum disease. However, over time and if left untreated, this can expand into severe gum disease, known as periodontitis (Gk. peri = "around"; odontos = "teeth"; itis = "inflammation.")

Periodontal disease destroys the jaw bone
Periodontal disease destroys the jaw bone | Source

Periodontitis is characterized by extremely infected and inflamed gum tissue (shiny, puffy gums that bleed when you touch them or exude pus); wiggly teeth due to the destruction of gum and ligament tissues which hold the teeth in place; separation of teeth with increasing space between teeth; and destruction of bone in the jaw, which also acts as a stabilizing mechanism for the teeth. The jaw bone is resorbed and does not grow back.

This disease takes time. It is the result of long-undisrupted biofilm (plaque). However, genetic predisposition and drugs like methamphetamine speed this process. Eventually the biofilm calcifies (hardens) and turns to calculus under the gumline. Over time, more and more harmful bacteria (gram-negative anaerobes ) adhere to this calculus matrix. When left alone, they calcify and form yet more calculus.

This is a vicious cycle that can and will lead to tooth loss if left untreated. If left for too long, periodontitis will cause systemic poisoning and will contribute to the development of systemic disease (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) and eventually death.

*With periodontitis, self-treatment is no longer an option, and professional help must be sought as soon as possible. It is not reversible like gingivitis; unfortunately, it can only be maintained by routine dental visits--for life. *

A healthy body starts with a healthy mouth
A healthy body starts with a healthy mouth | Source

Periodontitis and gingivitis are both, other than a few exceptions, completely preventable

If you're tired after a long day and don't feel like flossing, just remember: with practice, it only takes a few minutes! Do your very best and work on it. We're not expecting miracles here--just that you try. These things take time to remember and work into a habit. But hopefully along your floss-filled path you will now know WHY you should floss--and not just that you should.

Good luck, and happy flossing!

Copyright © 2010 Faceless39. All rights reserved.


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    • sasanka7 profile image

      sasanka7 6 years ago from Calcutta, India

      Thanks a lot for your nice suggestion. I appreciate that you have minutely noticed the practice of dental care among the poor in India. Till now villagers use neem stick. Though it tastes bitter yet it is antiseptic and refreshing as alleged. I personally also used it in my early life in the village. thank you again.

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 6 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Hi Sasanka7, thanks for the positive feedback. :)

      When I was in India I was happy to see how diligently people take care of their teeth and tongues. Whether neem or a "regular" toothbrush, even the extreme poor would often take the time. Very encouraging.

      I'm sorry to see you've got a cavity, but it sounds like you've done everything right to try to minimize its damage. I strongly recommend getting your cavity filled/fixed as soon as you can. The bacteria there can spread to the adjacent tooth (called "Kissing lesion"), and this is a common problem. The tooth always in contact with this bacteria is more easily affected itself. I've personally had this problem.

      Keep maintaining oral hygiene, but please get a filling for the cavity. It perhaps can be maintained at this rate, but sounds too large to be reversed. Good luck!

    • sasanka7 profile image

      sasanka7 6 years ago from Calcutta, India

      Very informative hub. In Calcutta, Dentists generally advise to brush teeth properly twice in a day but seldom recommend for flossing. I am used to floss as mentioned above but couldn't prevent cavity. Cavity in a remote or unreachable position in my upper jaw creates problem and it enlarges very slowly. Brushing, flossing and using mouthwash kept me away from bleeding and pain. How could i prevent spreading of cavity in adjacent tooth?

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 6 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      @Ladyjojo, thanks for the comment. With proper brushing and flossing techniques, you should be able to completely eliminate your gingivitis in a couple weeks!

      For tips on how to floss correctly, check out my article here:

    • ladyjojo profile image

      ladyjojo 6 years ago

      Hmmmm recently i went to the Dentist and he told me that i have gingivitis my gum bleeds easily when brushing my teeth and he told me to floss at nights.

      Thanks for sharing this important hub.

      God bless You

    • profile image

      John Delaney 6 years ago

      Just found your vegetarian article and thought I'd check this one out. Not at all what I expected (but in a good way!) I can honestly tell you after 60 years I had no idea about this. Thanks again for another great article. Will circulate this through the family.

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 7 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Thank you Scott--I appreciate your positive feedback!

    • Scott2111 profile image

      Scott2111 7 years ago from Detroit area

      Hey Kate. That was a very informative and well written article. You really know your stuff. Keep up the great work!!!!

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 7 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Thanks for the comment, Bill. There are many brands of floss holder available on the market today. However, I have never seen the Gripit before. It looks fantastic, and I know a lot of people use floss holders, so thanks for the tip!

    • profile image

      Bill Warner 7 years ago

      I have used a Gripit Floss Holder ( to floss regularly for 35 years. These handy devices come with their own floss supply that can be advanced in seconds and refilled from local drug and grocery stores. They also last a lifetime and don’t clog landfills. My grand kids like them too because they don’t have to put their fingers into their mouths to floss.

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 7 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Hey Mike, thanks for the amazing comment! Ha--I was going to answer you with "nanobots," but you beat me to the punch. Some day we will use a mouthwash that contains mouth-cleaning nanobots, I have no doubt. I've read a lot about the technology, and believe that's definitely the direction we're headed! As for the best technology now, though, I recommend Reach Total Care--featured in Popular Science magazine a couple years ago. I for the life of me can't find the article online, but it's there somewhere. Anyway, it's micro-ridged floss, and I highly recommend it!

    • profile image

      Michael Salamey 7 years ago

      Great article, Kate! It is nice to see sage advice taken for granted explained. I find it interesting that a piece of string is still the best technology we have to do this (though I must add that floss has really advanced in recent years--shred resistant, tape, micro-fiber, etc.). I am still waiting for dental gum that will do the job of brushing and flossing in less time and with better results. Perhaps with nano-bots? That would be sweet.

    • profile image

      Robin Wilson 7 years ago

      This was the most informative article I've seen on this topic. It would be more than helpful if, when you are at the dentist's office they would tell you why it's to your advantage to floss instead of just telling you to do so.Good job: we all need to know this info!