April is National Facial Protection Month, sponsored by the American Academy of Sports Dentistry. During April, the AASD encourages youth and adult athletes to wear mouth guards to protect the teeth from injury or trauma during athletics or sporting events. Wearing a mouth guard will definitely help to protect the teeth, but improper care of the mouth guard will negatively impact oral and total health.
There are several types of sports mouthguards on the market. Some are basic off the shelf types or stock types that do not need any preparation before using. Boil and bite guards are another type, and must be softened in boiling water and formed around the teeth by biting down. Another type is a personalized protective guard designed by a dental professional through impression mold casting.
According to the Academy of General Dentistry, bacteria often thrive in protective mouth gear. These bacteria not only pick up bacteria from the wearer that may cause periodontal infections and tooth decay, they can also lead to infections that impact the heart, lungs, and throat, causing pneumonia or strep throat. Other disease-causing organisms like mold and yeast also find their way to protective mouth guards and may infect the wearer with oral yeast infections, known as thrush. Some infections spread easily among teammates, too.These pathogens find their way to mouthguards because germs live on surfaces, like the playing field, the locker room bench, or in dark equipment bag.
"Think about it; these surfaces come in contact with many people who come in contact with many germs and all that stuff gets spread around," Dr. James Erpenbach said.
Erpenbach is a Knoxville, Tennessee, dentist who urges his patients to use protective mouth gear during athletics and activities, but reminds his patients to take care of their mouth guards like they would their toothbrush.
"You would not drop your toothbrush on the locker room floor and put it in your mouth, so why do that with your mouthguard?" he said.
Wearing the mouth guard is the best way to limit its contact with bacteria.
"When it is not in the mouth, it should be in a case- after is been cleaned thoroughly," Erpenbach said.
Putting a dirty mouth guard in a clean case leads to a dirty case, which likely will not be cleaned again before the mouth guard goes back in it. Simply rinsing with water is not good enough. The best way to clean a sports mouthguard is to use a separate, hard bristle toothbrush, with toothpaste and water. Scrub the mouthguard both inside and out, then rinse thoroughly. Allow the mouthguard to dry thoroughly and store in case.
There are also over-the-counter cleaning tablets and soaks available for mouthguard cleaning, just like those used to clean some patients freshen their mouthguard by rinsing it with an antiseptic or antimicrobial mouthwash, according to Erpenbach. He also explains that patients should brush their teeth before donning the device.
"Minimize the opportunity for bacteria to get a foothold, and you minimize the risk of decay, gum disease and illness," he said.
Individuals should never share mouthguards, just like they should never share toothbrushes Erpenbach cautions.
There have been cases of strep throat and other illnesses in families that have been linked to shared toothbrushes. He also advises that kids drink from their own water bottles and not sure drinks for the same reason they shouldn’t share guards.
"Germs spread quickly and before you know it, you have a whole team impacted," he said.
Patients looking for custom fit, high-quality mouthguard for sports should contact their dentist for their best options.