What should I know before I get dentures?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My dentist says it’s time for dentures. What should I know before I get them?

DEAR READER:

Nearly half of Americans ages 65 and over have lost six or more teeth because of decay or gum disease. Tooth loss can profoundly affect your health and well-being. The more teeth a person loses, the more difficult it is to chew food properly and get needed nutrients. Missing teeth can also make speaking difficult and make you self-conscious about your appearance. (Below, I’ve put an illustration of our teeth and their functions.)

Nothing can fully take the place of healthy, natural teeth, but several replacement options are available. One such replacement is dentures.

Partial dentures are an option if you need to replace several teeth in a row. Full dentures tend to be used in older individuals who have lost many of their natural teeth.

Full dentures last five to 10 years. Their fit changes over time as the shape of the jawbone changes. If your dentures are uncomfortable, let your dentist know. He or she can make adjustments and repairs in between replacements. If the chewing surfaces become worn, your dentist can attach new teeth to the existing base.

Take proper care of your dentures to keep them looking good and fitting well. The following tips will help:

  • Wash dentures in cold or warm — not hot — water.
  • Try not to drop dentures on a hard surface, as they break easily. Handle them over a basin of water or a soft towel.
  • Wash dentures daily with denture cleanser, hand soap or mild dish liquid. Avoid abrasive cleaners. This is really important. If dentures are not washed daily, they can become infected, usually with fungus and bacteria. When their surfaces are infected, and you wear the dentures, they can pass the infection to the lining of your mouth.

(I once had a patient whose dentures had made the roof of his mouth (his palate) so red, raw and sore that he needed to be hospitalized and given intravenous antibiotic treatments.)

  • Clean denture surfaces by scrubbing thoroughly with a special denture brush or a hard toothbrush.
  • After the adjustment phase, take your dentures out when you sleep to relieve pressure on your gums.
  • When your dentures aren’t in your mouth, soak them in a denture cleaning solution or in water. Don’t let them dry out.
  • Brush your mouth — including your gums, palate and tongue — with a soft-bristled toothbrush every morning before you insert your dentures.
  • Minor irritation and soreness should fade away as you get used to your dentures. Call your dentist if discomfort persists, or if you notice staining, bad odor, color changes or tartar deposits on them.
  • Don’t try to adjust or repair your dentures on your own.

Dentures can improve your nutrition, your speech, your appearance and your happiness. Treat them with respect.

Your teeth and their functions

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The adult mouth has three types of teeth:

Incisors: eight teeth in the middle front of the jaw (four upper and four lower) that have straight, sharp edges shaped for cutting food.

Canines: four larger teeth, also called cuspids or eyeteeth, with sharp points designed for ripping or tearing.

Bicuspids and molars: the remaining teeth—eight bicuspids (sometimes called premolars) and eight to 12 molars, which have broad, flat surfaces with small mounds for grinding food.