Your mouth provides the perfect warm, moist environment for hundreds of varieties of bacteria, according to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD). While a mouthful of bacteria might not be a pleasant thought, a daily routine of brushing and flossing can effectively clean the bacteria off your teeth and gums, helping to prevent tooth decay and gum disease.
However, if you also want fresh-smelling breath, you need to go one step further and learn how to clean your tongue. Here’s what you need to know.
Halitosis (Bad Breath) and Your Tongue
Although smoking, gum disease, dry mouth and certain foods (like garlic, onions and coffee) can cause halitosis, the Journal of Breath Research reports that 80 percent of the cases of bad breath are due to bacteria on the tongue. Just as bacteria cling to your teeth, bacterial biofilms find the pits, fissures and complex papillae on your tongue and grab hold.
When the bacteria break down the food and other debris on your tongue, unpleasant smelling volatile sulfur compounds (VSC) are produced. Another common source of VSC is bacteria-laden mucus from sinus drainage, which coats the back of the tongue.
So, the key to having breath that doesn’t offend is to keep the bacteria level on your tongue to a minimum.
Cleaning Your Tongue
If you have ever struggled with bad breath, you’ve probably tried breath mints, antibacterial mouthwashes and chewing gum to combat the condition. You may have even begun to brush and floss more often and more thoroughly. These are all good remedies, as is drinking lots of water—but if you aren’t cleaning your tongue, you may be leaving a large number of odor-causing bacteria in your mouth.
Since dental professionals understand the importance of a healthy tongue and fresh-smelling breath, they recommend cleaning your tongue with your toothbrush after brushing your teeth. If you don’t like the feel of the brush on your tongue, inexpensive tongue cleaners or scrapers are often available in drug stores and are easy to use.
Whether you use a brush or a scraper, be sure to clean the entire surface of your tongue (down the middle and on the sides) and get as far back as you can. When you are done, rinse off your brush or scraper before letting it dry.
Scraper or Brush?
A study published in the Journal of Periodontology showed that a tongue scraper actually removed more bacteria from the tongue than a toothbrush. In fact, the scraper reduced VSC by 75 percent, whereas the brush only by 45 percent.
But even when using a scraper, keeping bacteria levels in your mouth at bay can be a challenge, and the freshening effect is typically short-term. However, the aforementioned report published in the Journal of Breath Research suggests that peak results (lasting up to six hours) can be achieved by using a newly developed sonic tongue brush along with either water or an antibacterial tongue spray.
Dental Plaque and Tongue Bacteria
It’s worthy to note that the amount of bacterial plaque that forms on your teeth is not influenced by the number of bacteria on the tongue. So, simply keeping your teeth clean won’t reduce the number of bacteria on your tongue.
This is why, for optimal oral health, dentists advise their patients to not only clean their teeth thoroughly but their tongue as well. If you need more guidance around how to clean your tongue, your dentist or dental staff can help you find the right tools and show you how to use them.