What really happens when you don't brush your teeth

You've likely been told once or twice that it's important for you to regularly brush your teeth and to brush them a couple of times each day. It's not just about hygiene, routinely brushing your teeth can help protect your overall health too. There are a number of conditions that can go along with not brushing your teeth — it's not just cavities you're risking. 

While it can be tempting to skip a brushing session here and there — you're too tired, you forgot and didn't remember until the last second, and others — once you see what can happen to you when you don't brush your teeth, you're likely to skip brushings much less frequently.

Periodontal disease and bone loss

You might not have ever considered it, but in addition to cavities, you can actually get more serious periodontal disease and even bone loss from not brushing your teeth. According to Dr. Rajan Sharma, a certified root canal specialist and founder of Eon Clinics, "Bacteria produce some enzymes that really start eating your bone and as you develop periodontal disease, then cause becomes effect. Now the bone is being eaten up, there's more room for bacteria to grow, so the cause is becoming effect and effect is becoming cause and the cycle starts for further bone loss." 

The infections that cause periodontal disease can even require surgery to address the issues if they're super-severe. So not worth it.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a serious, chronic condition that plagues all too many people, children and adults alike. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, there seems to be an association between periodontitis (otherwise known as inflammation/infection of the gums) and diabetes. 

This research doesn't mean that one condition causes the other, but it seems that those who suffer from periodontitis (which is often a result of poor oral hygiene) are more likely to also have — or get — diabetes. Those can both be extremely serious conditions, especially if left untreated, so if brushing your teeth can help protect you against one or both of them, it just might be worth it.

Heart disease

Wait, what? There's a correlation between not brushing your teeth and heart disease? It's true! "The bacteria that is retained in your mouth when you fail to brush gets into your blood stream and can affect your natural body processes, such as your body's natural ability to fight infectious diseases," Dr. Brent Rusnak, a dentist and the founder of River Run Dental, said. "Poor oral health can result in heart disease, stroke, and even Alzheimer's disease." 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the number one cause of death in American women and Alzheimer's disease is number five. Preventing these conditions — rather than waiting to simply treat them — can go a long way in preserving health and saving lives.

Bad breath

"When you do not brush your teeth, you are creating an environment for plaque and decay to thrive in your mouth," said dentist Dr. Glenn LeSueur. "Just think about everything you ate today. Every time you eat, remnants of that food stick to your teeth. If that is not brushed away, plaque will develop and, over time, may harden into calculus, which can then only be removed by a dental professional." 

All of those built up food remnants can make your breath smell, well, a little less than sweet. Brushing your teeth can help you avoid those awkward, embarrassing "Do you think they can tell my breath stinks?" moments, which are so worth avoiding.

Gingivitis

Before you end up with full-blown periodontal disease, you often first get something called gingivitis. As Dr. Nirav Shah, a California-based dentist told me, gingivitis is the "initial inflammation, swelling, and bleeding of the gums." 

It's important to take care of your gums, teeth, and soft tissues of the mouth before it gets to this point, of course, but it's also — and maybe even more — important to do what you can once you start to get those telltale gingivitis signs to alleviate the problem and make sure it doesn't progress to something much worse that'll be more painful and difficult to treat.

Enamel decay

Your enamel, which is found on each tooth, is super important. It protects your teeth against the big, bad world. 

"Think about what occurs to food when it is left out of the fridge overnight…it begins to spoil. The mouth being at an even higher temperature (a tropical 98.6 degrees) creates an environment where this process of food spoiling can occur even faster," Shah said. "Bacteria feeds off of this leftover food, creating dental plaque. Plaque has a distinct odor. The prolonged presence of this plaque on the gums causes inflammation of the gums, with the initial response being bleeding gums. The prolonged presence of this plaque on the teeth causes the enamel to breakdown." 

The breakdown of the enamel coating on your teeth will cause your teeth to decay much faster than they would otherwise. Enamel is something that you need to work to protect and taking good care of your teeth — brushing, flossing, going to the dentist — can help you do so.

Stained teeth

Whenever you eat or drink things that have darker pigments (like coffee and tea, beets, and wine), they can cause your teeth to yellow, rather than staying pearly white. Smoking can also cause your teeth to darken and become stained over time. 

"The teeth will pick up the staining from our food and drink, and if this staining sits on the teeth too long, it begins to change the color of the teeth," Shah told me. "Brush it off sooner and keep the smile looking great!"

While brushing your teeth twice a day might not be enough to completely keep your teeth from getting a little bit yellow-er, it's certainly a good first step.

Stroke

That's right, not brushing your teeth can lead to heart attacks and incidences of stroke. "The bacteria that resides in the plaque in the mouth will enter the bloodstream and travel to the heart and brain to then create arterial plaque," Shah told me. "If that plaque grows enough to prevent the blood flow to that area, the cells in that area will die due to the lack of oxygen. The heart and the brain are the areas that are most susceptible to the damaging effects of arterial plaque." 

Taking care of preventing and eliminating that plaque before it gets the chance to migrate and make things a whole lot worse can prevent disability or even death. Get to brushing.

Premature birth

I don't know about you, but I had no idea that not brushing your teeth could actually lead to premature birth. "Gum disease has been proven to result in premature birth and low birth weight," Shah said. 

If you skip your routine teeth brushing often enough, it could actually negatively affect your baby, should you become pregnant. If you have gum disease, you might end up giving birth early, meaning your baby won't be as grown and developed as they should be, which, in turn, can lead to a whole host of other problems. You eat better, sleep more, and generally take better care of yourself while pregnant, but making sure to brush your teeth before and during your pregnancy is something that you shouldn't overlook.