Plaque is a filmy substance that sticks to your teeth. It develops from bacteria, and everyone has bacteria in their mouths. Food particles left behind after brushing allow bacteria to grow and form plaque. Plaque contains acids that can erode tooth enamel and cause cavities. Plaque left on the teeth can also harden, and this can lead to serious problems for the gums and the teeth as well.
Hardened plaque is called calculus, or more commonly, tartar. Tartar on the teeth has to be scraped off. Normal brushing and flossing at home can remove most of the plaque from your teeth so that it never develops into tartar, but it is not uncommon for some of it to be left behind. Plaque and tartar irritate the gums and cause gingivitis, the first stage of gum disease.
At a dental office, gingivitis can be reversed with a professional cleaning. A dentist or dental hygienist first removes all plaque and tartar from the teeth with professional dental instruments. A thorough cleaning that often includes a fluoride treatment leaves the mouth and teeth clean and free from plaque and tartar.
If gingivitis is not treated, tartar can eventually start to spread below the gum line. This is called periodontitis, and it requires more than a simple cleaning. A deep cleaning, also known as scaling and root planing, scrapes away the tartar on the teeth and below the gum line. The surface of the tooth roots are then smoothed to allow the gums to properly reattach. This is a non-surgical procedure, but surgery sometimes does become necessary for severe cases of periodontitis.
Because bacteria are always in our mouths, and because we have to eat, it is impossible to prevent plaque from developing in the first place. Good oral hygiene that includes brushing twice a day and flossing at least once a day will help to keep plaque under control and prevent gum disease, but the majority of people get gum disease at some time in their lives. Regular visits to the dentist for check ups will catch gingivitis before it has a chance to become periodontitis.