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

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 13, 2023
6 min read

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. Sometimes health issues or other situations may mean your dental care is delayed. But don’t worry – you can practice good dental hygiene at home until you can get back to your dentist.

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. 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 “interdental cleaner.” That includes:

  • String floss
  • Floss picks
  • Water flossers

Don’t use your fingernail, a safety pin, or any other 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:

  • Cetylpyridinium chloride
  • Essential oils (eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate, thymol)
  • Fluoride
  • Peroxide

Drink water with fluoride. That’s the water 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.

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 older, 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.

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.

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

Some natural or herbal products, including common foods and drinks, can help clean teeth.

Look for these in your pharmacy or grocery store:

  • Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • Peroxide (must be carefully diluted)
  • Green tea
  • Eucalyptol, menthol, and tea tree oil
  • Xylitol gum or lozenges
  • Vitamin D

Baking soda for teeth

Baking soda can help fight tooth decay. It has been found to cut the acid in plaque, which can help lessen the chances you’ll get cavities. It also can kill bacteria in your mouth when used in concentrated (larger) amounts. Toothpaste that has baking soda may feel gritty (compared with gels and other toothpastes), but it doesn’t scratch your teeth. In fact, studies show that baking soda toothpastes do a better job of removing stains and whitening teeth than other toothpastes that are harsher on the surface of your teeth. 

Green tea for teeth

One study suggests that rinsing with green tea extract may help keep your teeth from decay. Another shows it might stop starchy foods, such as crackers or cake, from causing tooth decay. And a third shows that people who regularly drink green tea have healthier gums than those who don't.

Oil pulling for teeth

Oil pulling is an ancient practice of swishing a small amount of oil in your mouth for 20 minutes or so a day.  Scientists say you should still brush and floss your teeth, and oil – especially coconut oil – can slow down plaque. One study says it is as effective as mouthwash. 

Oil pulling is seen as useful for home dental care, especially in developing countries that don’t have access to products like mouthwash. 

Oils – including eucalyptol, menthol, and tea tree – that help kill bacteria in your mouth can keep your gums from getting inflamed. You can find these oils in certain toothpastes and mouthwashes.

Other natural ways to kill mouth bacteria

Peroxide can help fight certain bacteria. But if you use peroxide, you’ll need to mix it with water to weaken it. Peroxide at full strength might burn your gums. You might see dental care products that include peroxide already diluted.

Xylitol, an alcohol used in place of sugar, may help cut down on tooth decay. It's sold as a gum or lozenge, but it's not clear just how well it works. One study says it helped cut cavities in adults by only 10%. It can help dry mouth by increasing your amount of saliva.

Vitamin D may be good for your mouth by helping your body kill bacteria. Studies show you may be more likely to get gum disease if you don't have enough of it. Some foods and drinks that have vitamin D are eggs, tuna, salmon, and orange juice that has the vitamin added to it.

Remember, your dentist can help point you to natural ingredients that are best for you.

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 your toothbrush because of an infection. Don’t share your toothbrush with anyone.

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

Call your dentist before you go to their office for an emergency. And if you’re sick, tell them about your 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.