During this cold and flu season, it’s especially important to be aware of germs. Hopefully, you’re already washing your hands regularly and getting plenty of rest to help ward off any illness. However, what you might not have considered is your toothbrush. You put this device in your mouth every day (hopefully twice per day for at least two minutes, if you’re brushing your teeth like the American Dental Association recommends). Unfortunately, your toothbrush could be hosting millions of microorganisms, some of which could make you ill. At Dr. Craig Armstrong’s Houston dental office, we’re dedicated to improving our patients’ oral and overall well-being. In the following blog, we explain how your toothbrush could make you sick and what you can do to stay healthy.
Oral Bacteria Basics
What if we told you that there is a whole host of germs in your mouth at this very moment? In all likelihood, there is, but it’s probably perfectly safe. Most mouths are home to myriad microorganisms, most of which are ultimately innocuous if properly managed. As Mayo Clinic explains, “like many areas of your body, your mouth is teeming with bacteria — most of them harmless. Normally the body’s natural defenses and good oral health care, such as daily brushing and flossing, can keep these bacteria under control.” Good oral hygiene is essential to keeping you free from illness. However, the situation can become more complicated if your toothbrush, which is a key hygienic guard against sickness, actually harbors some of the germs you’re trying to avoid.
Your toothbrush is an important component of your oral hygiene, but regrettably, it can also be a source of sickness. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) reports that, “according to researchers, there can be as many as 1.2 million bacteria on a single toothbrush. Also, a New York State Dental Journal found that 70% of used toothbrushes are contaminated with these bacteria.” UAMS notes: “researchers have found the flu virus, staph bacteria, E. coli, yeast fungus and strep virus hanging out on used toothbrushes.”
Furthermore, toothbrushes can spread serious infections. As per a 2006 article in the Journal of Viral Hepatitis, a study indicated “at least a theoretical risk of [hepatitis C] infection by sharing these objects,” thereby “strengthening the recommendations to take care of a clear separation of these personal objects between patients and their household members.” Similarly, a 2001 piece in the Journal of the American Dental Association noted in its “clinical implications” that “dental professionals should advise patients who have systemic, localized or oral inflammatory diseases to disinfect or frequently replace their toothbrushes” since “contaminated toothbrushes have been shown to harbor and transmit viruses and bacteria.”
Why Makes Toothbrushes So Microorganism-Friendly?
There are a few different reasons toothbrushes may house bacteria, viruses, or other germs.
First of all, toothbrushes go inside your mouth every day, which, as we’ve mentioned above, is already home to various bacteria. Your spit and the water you wet your toothbrush with also make it more hospitable to microorganisms and mold. Additionally, a toothbrush’s tightly packed bristles can hold particulate matter.
The way most people tend to store their toothbrushes also makes these tools more germ-friendly. If your toothbrush can’t dry out, it will stay moist (and potentially warm), making it an even better host for microorganisms. As a Huffington Post “Ask a Scientist” article points out, “the moist environment provided by a recently rinsed toothbrush is rather hospitable to pathogens — they usually last longer on wet bristles.” Furthermore, most people tend to store their toothbrushes in the bathroom. When you take a shower, the room fills with steam, further moistening your toothbrush. Particulate matter from the toilet can also end up on your toothbrush when you flush.
Sharing your toothbrush with one or more other people increases all of these risks, so Dr. Armstrong and our team strongly advise against this. Using a toothbrush for longer than advised (typically, beyond about three months) can also make it more susceptible (as well as less effective at brushing).
How to Stay Well and Keep Your Toothbrush Clean
The idea of a bacteria-infested toothbrush can be quite unnerving, especially since this oral implement is supposed to help you keep your mouth germ-free. Fortunately, there are a variety of simple, effective things you can do to keep your toothbrush as pristine as possible. Dr. Armstrong and our team recommend that you:
Wash your hands with soap and water before brushing and flossing. Hand soap is usually antibacterial or antimicrobial, removing germs from your hands before you touch your toothbrush.
Let your toothbrush dry out properly. As the Cleveland Clinic pointed out, “the bacteria that live on a toothbrush after you use it are considered anaerobic — meaning that they will die in the presence of oxygen. So, in general, if you let your toothbrush air dry, it will take care of most bacteria.” We suggest that you never put your brush in a close container until it’s dry. Delta Dental even advises having “two toothbrushes to give ample time (24 hours) for [each one] to dry out in between uses.”
Avoid sharing toothpaste. When you dispense toothpaste, the tip of the tube touches your toothbrush. As a result, each person who uses the same tube of toothpaste can spread their toothbrush’s bacteria to another person.
Keep your and your loved ones’ toothbrushes apart. To slow the spread of disease, we recommend that you prevent your toothbrush from touching anyone else’s. Dr. Armstrong and our team suggest using a toothbrush holder that keeps brushes separate and stores them upright to dry.
Store toothbrushes away from the toilet. As we’ve discussed above, when the toilet flushes, germs may be propelled into the air, where they can land on nearby objects, including your toothbrush. It’s probably impractical to store your toothbrushes in another room entirely, but there are steps you can take to minimize your risks. We urge you to close the lid when you flush and keep your toothbrushes as far away from the toilet as possible.
Sanitize your toothbrush as needed. Since it seems somewhat inevitable that your toothbrush will get at least a little contaminated in the course of use, it’s a good idea to clean it routinely (as often as you believe is necessary, perhaps about once per month). A dishwasher is a convenient way to sanitize your brush, especially if someone in your household has recently been sick. Some brushes, however, will get worn or damaged from the high heat, so check your brush afterward for warpage. If you don’t have a dishwasher or your toothbrush doesn’t hold up well in the dishwasher, you can also soak it in antibacterial mouthwash or hydrogen peroxide. Peroxide is an excellent, cost-effective option for disinfecting your toothbrush.
Get rid of your old toothbrushes. Tattered toothbrushes can hold even more bacteria, given their longer exposure to moisture, toilet flushes, toothbrush tubes, and your mouth. Dr. Armstrong recommends replacing your old toothbrush at least every three months. Regardless of how long it’s been, if your bristles look worn or frayed, it’s time to get a new toothbrush. Regularly replacing your toothbrush is also an important part of maintaining good oral hygiene, since damaged bristles aren’t as good at cleaning your teeth.
Regularly clean your toothbrush holder. A clean toothbrush won’t do you much good if you place it in a dirty holder. We encourage you to sterilize your toothbrush holder with a germ-killing cleaner such as diluted bleach or sanitizing wipes at least once a month.
Following this advice should allow you to adequately protect yourself and your toothbrush from bacteria, viruses, and other germs.
Should You Throw Out Your Toothbrush if You’ve Been Sick?
Now you know how your toothbrush could contribute to your sickness and what to do to keep it clean, but what should you do if you do end up getting sick? Patients often wonder if they should throw out their old toothbrushes after a cold or flu.
According to an article for the Today Show, one “professor of microbiology and environmental sciences” explained that “when you recover from a particular virus, your body no longer remains susceptible to that strain,” so you shouldn’t be able to re-infect yourself with your toothbrush. However, as “Dr. Heather Rosen, medical director of UPMC North Huntington Urgent Care” puts it, “‘there are so many bacteria that can reside on a toothbrush…it is always best to get rid of it once you have been infected’” as a precaution. Furthermore, the Today Show notes that “replacing your toothbrush after illness reduces the chance that your nasty brush spreads its germs to anyone else’s nearby brushes.”
If you took excellent care of your and your family’s toothbrushes (following all of the advice above), it might be acceptable to keep your toothbrush after sickness, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Our Houston Dental Office Can Help
Are you concerned about your toothbrush making you sick? Are you unsure which device to buy or how to properly brush your teeth? Dr. Armstrong and our team would be delighted to assist you. We’re here to answer your questions and provide oral hygiene advice. If it’s been more than six months since the last time you saw us, it’s time to schedule your next professional cleaning and examination. To find out more about toothbrush safety, contact our Houston dental office today.