Your Toothbrush — An Essential Health Tool, a Potential Threat

We all brush our teeth every day, sometimes several times. But most of us remain unaware that the humble toothbrush can carry a medical textbook’s worth of nasty bugs.

A toothbrush can play host to Staphylococci (commonly from mucus membranes and skin), yeasts, intestinal bacteria and even fecal germs. But instead of tossing it into a vat of boiling bleach, the School of Dentistry at the University of Alabama, Birmingham invites you to learn a bit more and practice a few habits.

“The oral cavity is home to hundreds of different types of microorganisms, which can be transferred to a toothbrush during use,” according to Dr. Maria L. Geisinger in a report on the university’s website. She’s a professor of periodontology at UA.

“Furthermore,” Geisinger said, “most toothbrushes are stored in bathrooms, which exposes them to gastrointestinal microorganisms that may be transferred via a fecal-oral route. The number of microorganisms can vary wildly from undetectable to 1 million…. Proper handling and care of your toothbrush is important to your overall health.”

This Q&A, excerpted from the one with Geisinger, explains the proper care and handling of your toothbrush:

Q. How do bacteria from the toilet reach your toothbrush?

A. Enteric bacteria, which mostly occur in the intestines, can transfer to toothbrushes through inadequate hand washing or via microscopic droplets expelled during a toilet flush. In a recent episode of Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters,” 24 toothbrushes were tested. All of them bore microorganisms – even the ones that hadn’t been stored in the bathroom. Toothbrushes can be contaminated with bacteria right out of the box, because packaging requirements don’t include a sterile process.

Q. What is the proper way to clean a toothbrush?

A. After brushing, thoroughly rinse toothbrushes with potable tap water to remove remaining toothpaste and debris. Soaking toothbrushes in an antibacterial mouth rinse has been shown to lower the level of bacteria growing on a toothbrush.

Q. How do you store a toothbrush to avoid germ and bacteria buildup?

A. Don’t store it in a closed container or routinely cover it – a damp environment invites the growth of microorganisms. Store it upright, and allow it to air dry until the next use, if possible. If toothbrushes are stored together, keeping them separate helps prevent cross-contamination.

Q. Should you brush your teeth when you’re sick?

A. Sure. But if you’re ill with anything that can be transmitted through body fluids, keep your toothbrush separate from anybody else’s. Replace it when you’re feeling better.

Q. How often should a toothbrush be replaced?

A. At least every three to four months, or when bristles become frayed and worn, whichever comes first.

Take these steps for additional protection against contaminating toothbrushes and for better oral health generally:

  • Use antimicrobial mouth rinse before brushing. This can decrease the bacterial load in your mouth and might reduce the number of microorganisms that end up on the toothbrush after brushing.
  • Get routine dental care. Seeing the hygienist and dentist regularly can reduce the bacteria count in your mouth, and the types of bacteria present. It’s especially important for people with gum disease, because the oral bacteria present in their mouths can enter the bloodstream during the performance of everyday activities, including eating, chewing gum and tooth-brushing.
  • Wash your hands. Reduce the likelihood of fecal-oral contamination by washing up after using the toilet and before brushing your teeth.
  • Do not share toothbrushes. Duh. Still, lots of people do this – we’re talking to you, spouses and lovers, parents and children. Sharing a toothbrush is sharing bacteria, including the ones that cause dental decay and periodontal disease – the two major dental diseases in adults.

To develop good oral hygiene habits with your children, see our blog “Good Oral Health Starts in Infancy.”

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