Teeth and Gum Care When You Can’t Go to Your Dentist

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 11, 2021

photo of woman flossing her teeth

It’s a good idea to see your dentist at least once a year. They can spot early signs of health problems, like cavities, gingivitis, or even diabetes. Because of coronavirus, they may only be open for dental emergencies. But don’t worry -- good dental hygiene actually starts at home.

How to Clean Your Teeth and Gums at Home

Your goal is to get rid of plaque. That’s a clear film that clings to your teeth. It’s mostly made up of bacteria that release acid when you eat or drink. These bacteria really like sugar. Over time, that acid can break down the hard coating, or enamel, on your teeth. That can lead to cavities. It may also creep into your gum line. You might get gingivitis. That’s an infection in your gums.

Plaque buildup can turn into tartar, or calculus. That’s the hard stuff the dentist scrapes off at your cleaning. They’ll use a special tool and a technique called scaling. That’s not something you should try at home. To keep your teeth and gums in good shape, you can:

Brush at least two times a day. You can use an electric toothbrush or a regular one with soft bristles. Gently brush for 2 minutes.

Use fluoride toothpaste. Ask your dentist if you need more fluoride. They can give you a prescription for a special kind.

Replace your old toothbrush. Get a new one every 3-4 months. Switch it out sooner if the bristles start to wear out.

Clean between your teeth once a day. Your dentist may tell you to use an “inter-dental cleaner.” That includes tools like:

  • String floss
  • Floss picks
  • Water flossers

Don’t use your fingernail, a safety pin, or any another household item.

Add a mouthwash. You’ll want a therapeutic, or antiseptic, rinse. It helps control plaque, gingivitis, bad breath, germs, and tooth decay. Kids younger than 6 shouldn’t use mouthwash. They may swallow it. Look for one with ingredients like:

Drink water with fluoride. That’s the kind that comes from your tap. Bottled water may not have enough.

Chew sugar-free gum. When you chew, you make more saliva. A wet mouth can help protect against cavities and gum disease. Pop a piece after you eat or throughout the day to help with dry mouth.

To protect your teeth and gums:

  • Don’t smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco.
  • Manage health conditions, like diabetes.
  • Cut back on sugar, including sweet snacks and drinks.

Can an Electric Toothbrush Help?

A regular toothbrush works just fine when you use it the right way. But a powered version can make it easier to do a good job of cleaning your teeth. You may want one if:

  • You can’t hold things very well. That includes if you’re elderly, have arthritis, or any issue that makes it harder to hold things.
  • You want to be sure you brush long enough. Your electric toothbrush will likely have a timer. It’ll let you know when you’ve brushed for 2 minutes. Some buzz every 30 seconds.

Should You Worry If Your Gums Bleed?

It’s normal to see some red if you haven’t flossed in a while or ever. It can take a week or so for your gums to get used to the new routine. You should keep flossing, but do it gently.

If you keep bleeding every time you brush or floss, that could be a sign of gingivitis or more serious gum disease. Give your dentist a call.

Do You Need to Scrape Your Tongue?

There’s no scientific evidence that scraping is a good way to remove germs, like the kind that cause bad breath (halitosis). But there’s nothing wrong with cleaning your tongue. You can buy a special scraper or use your toothbrush.

What to Do When You’re Sick

Even if you don’t feel well, you should still try to brush your teeth twice a day. You can also:

  • Use sugar-free cough drops.
  • Rinse with water or diluted mouthwash if you throw up.
  • Ward off dry mouth with plain water (no sugar or acidic lemon).

It’s unlikely that you’ll reinfect yourself. So you don’t need to throw out a new toothbrush. Don’t share your toothbrush with anyone.

What Is a Dental Emergency?

There are some problems you shouldn’t handle yourself. Give your dentist a call if you have:

  • Serious pain or swelling in or around your mouth
  • Bleeding that won’t stop
  • Signs of infection (swelling, redness, pain)
  • A broken tooth or crown
  • Problems with your dentures

Call your dentist before you go to their office. Tell them if you have other symptoms, like a cough, fever, or shortness of breath. That could be a sign you have a viral infection like the flu or COVID-19. They’ll give you advice on next steps to take.

Show Sources

SOURCES: “Your Top 9 Questions About Going to the Dentist – Answered!” “Diabetes and Your Smile,” “Plaque,” “Gingivitis,” “Flossing,” “Scaling and Root Planing,” “Brushing Your Teeth,” “Bleeding Gums,” “Tongue Scrapers and Cleaners,” “Cold and Flu Season: 5 Ways to Care for Your Mouth When You’re Sick,” “Dental Appointments and COVID-19.”

CDC: “What Can Adults Do to Maintain Good Oral Health?” “Community Water Fluoridation: Bottled Water.”

The Journal of the American Dental Association: “Drink Up! Fluoridated water helps fight decay.”

American Academy of Periodontology: “What Is The Difference Between Plaque and Calculus?”

American Dental Association: “Home Oral Care,” “Mouthwash (Mouthrinse),” “Chewing Gum.”

NIH: News in Health: “Keep Your Mouth Healthy: Oral Care for Older Adults.”

Advances in Nutrition: “Sugars and Dental Caries: Evidence for Setting a Recommended Threshold for Intake.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Should I Be Using an Electric Toothbrush?”

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