Dental biofilm is the name given to the colonies of microorganisms which make up plaque. Usually, these colonies consist of a wide variety of bacteria, algae, fungi, and debris, which are attached to the tooth’s surface and coated in a protective layer of self-generated slime. Left undisturbed, dental biofilm can cause the gum diseases gingivitis and periodontitis, which may eventually lead to tooth loss. Due to the fact that the genetic properties of attached bacterial colonies are quite different than those of free bacteria, dental biofilm cannot be easily treated with traditional antibiotics. Most dental experts believe that biofilm is best removed from the teeth using manual methods.
The first step in the formation of dental biofilm is the establishment of a pellicle, or an extremely sticky layer of proteins derived from the saliva, on the surface of the teeth. Next, free-floating substances such as bacteria begin to attach to the pellicle. For reasons not yet fully understood by researchers, these attached bacteria seem to behave differently than free bacteria. They emit a signal which instructs other nearby bacteria to attach to the pellicle, and also begin to multiply, creating a colony of microorganisms. The colony secretes a layer of slime, which sheaths it in a protective coating.
Formation of thriving colonies of dental biofilm can occur in just a matter of days. Over the next few weeks, biofilm can begin to penetrate the gums, causing gingivitis, a condition in which the gums become irritated and begin to recede. Gingivitis can, in turn, lead to periodontitis, or advanced gum disease, which may result in tooth loss over time.
Researchers have discovered that dental biofilm is not responsive to treatment with traditional antibiotics. Many suspect that the biofilm’s slime layer may be to blame for this antibiotic resistance. This slime may act as a shield, which prevents both the antibiotic agents found in drugs and the body’s own antibodies from attacking the microorganisms beneath it.
Luckily, dental experts believe that removal of dental biofilm from beneath the gum line is possible. Rather than relying on antibiotic intervention, however, manual removal of biofilm by a dental hygienist is believed to be the most successful treatment option when the biofilm colonies are significantly advanced. Perhaps the most effective treatment of all, though, is prevention. Regular brushing, flossing, and mouthwash use can help to eliminate biofilm colonies before they have a chance to become well-established.