Dental Plaque


What is plaque?

Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that constantly forms on teeth. Bacteria in plaque produce acids after you eat or drink. These acids can destroy tooth enamel and cause cavities and gingivitis (gum disease).

Plaque can also develop under the gums on tooth roots and break down the bones that support teeth. Untreated plaque can harden into tough-to-remove tartar. Proper oral hygiene, including daily brushing and flossing, gets rid of plaque.

How common is plaque?

Everyone has dental plaque to some degree. If your teeth feel fuzzy when you run your tongue over them, that’s plaque.

Who may be more likely to get plaque?

Although everyone gets plaque, you may develop more plaque than usual if you:

  • Consume a lot of sugary or starchy foods or drinks.
  • Have dry mouth due to medications like antidepressants or conditions like Sjögren’s syndrome.
  • Have a history of head/neck radiation.
  • Smoke.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes plaque?

Plaque forms when bacteria in your mouth mix with sugary or starchy foods, such as milk, juice, soft drinks, bread, pasta and fruit. These bacteria release acids that break down carbohydrates in food and drinks. If you don’t brush your teeth soon after eating or drinking, the combination of bacteria, acids and carbohydrates can mix into a sticky, colorless film called plaque.

What are the symptoms of plaque?

A fuzzy feeling on the teeth is the top sign that you have plaque. Other indicators include:

What are the complications of plaque?

If you don’t brush and floss daily, plaque can harden into tartar. Only a dental professional can remove tartar. Plaque and tartar can lead to:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is plaque diagnosed?

Your dentist or dental hygienist uses instruments during regular dental checkups to find and remove plaque. Plaque can cause cavities. You may also get dental X-rays to check for cavities.

Management and Treatment

How is plaque managed or treated?

Good oral hygiene, including regular brushing and flossing, removes plaque and prevents tartar buildup. During a dental examination, your dental professional will scrape plaque and tartar from your teeth. Your provider may also recommend:


How can I prevent plaque?

Good tooth and gum care is key to reducing plaque. You should:

  • Floss daily: Floss once a day with dental floss or a water flosser to get rid of food and plaque stuck between teeth. Studies show that flossing before brushing teeth removes more plaque.
  • Brush twice a day: Brush teeth for two minutes with a soft-bristled toothbrush (manual or powered) and fluoride toothpaste. Brush at least twice a day, and preferably after every meal.
  • Chew sugarless gum: If you can’t brush soon after eating or drinking, chew sugar-free gum. Choose a kind that has the American Dental Association (ADA) seal.
  • Choose healthy foods: Cut back on sugary, starchy foods and drinks. Instead, choose nutritious foods and snacks such as plain yogurt, cheese, raw vegetables or fruit.
  • See your dentist: Get dental checkups at least twice a year.
  • Use mouthwash: Rinse with an over-the-counter or prescription antiseptic mouthwash.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with plaque?

Everyone has mouth bacteria that cause plaque. With proper oral hygiene, you can remove plaque and prevent serious dental problems.

Because plaque can cause cavities, tartar and gum disease, regular dental checkups are a must. If plaque and tooth decay go undetected and untreated, you could develop a painful gum infection or lose teeth.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Chronic bad breath.
  • Facial swelling.
  • Loose tooth.
  • Pain or difficulty chewing.
  • Redness around or inside the mouth.
  • Swollen, bleeding gums or other signs of gum disease.
  • Toothache or mouth pain.
  • Tooth sensitivity to hot or cold foods or drinks.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • What’s the best way to prevent and get rid of plaque?
  • How can I lower my risk of cavities and gum disease?
  • What dietary changes should I make to reduce plaque?
  • What should I look for in a toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash?
  • How often should I get dental cleanings?
  • Should I look out for signs of complications?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Dental plaque is a common problem with an easy fix: Brush and floss daily and see your dentist. You can also use antiseptic mouthwashes to kill bacteria that cause plaque. If you let a film of plaque stay on your teeth too long, it can harden and develop into tartar. Eventually, you can get gum disease and may even lose teeth. You should have your teeth cleaned at least twice a year. Ask your dentist about steps you can take to reduce plaque and protect your oral health.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/14/2020.


  • Academy of General Dentistry. Daily Tips for Good Oral Hygiene. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Mouth and Teeth: How to Keep Them Healthy. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • American Association of Orthodontists. Should I Floss or Brush First? ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • American Dental Association. Oral Health Topics: Chewing Gum. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • American Dental Association. Oral Health Topics: Toothbrushes. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • American Dental Association Mouth Healthy. Plaque. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Periodontal Disease. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Periodontal (Gum) Disease. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.
  • National Institute on Aging. Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth. ( Accessed 11/9/2021.

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