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Top 10 Toothbrush Tips For When You Are Sick

By Dr. Dwayne Kowalchuk, BSc, DMD

man sick in bedThis time of year, when the busy and often stressful holiday season is upon us… many people catch a nasty bug – a cold or flu. Our immune systems are taxed, and lack of sleep doesn’t help either. With over 200 strains of cold bugs (a.k.a. “rhinoviruses”) circulating through the population at any given time, it’s no wonder that we get sick and pass it on to our family members. I was inspired to write this article after catching a nasty cold, and I still have a few sniffles as I type these words.

So… should we worry about anything when it comes to our oral health when we’re infected with a cold or flu virus? Consider these 10 common questions and their answers regarding after-illness oral care.

1. Should I replace my toothbrush after getting a cold? What about the flu? Won’t the germs linger and re-infect me or my kids if I don’t?

Good question! It sounds like common sense doesn’t it, especially if the YUCK factor concerns you. But your immune system creates antibodies to fight off invading germs such as cold and flu-causing viruses. So long as your immune system isn’t compromised, these antibodies keep you from catching the same flu or cold twice. Once your body has defeated the viruses, they can’t re-infect you and make you sick again, whether they are in your body, or on your toothbrush.

“You develop antibodies for each of the viruses you are exposed to,” said Dr. Natalie Azar, NBC medical contributor. “If you are having a cold that feels like it just doesn’t quit, it is probably a different cold virus.”

If you read anything to the contrary… they’re usually written by vested-interest corporations trying to SELL you more of their toothbrushes. However, if you share your toothbrush with someone else (which I don’t recommend) or store it in close contact with other family members toothbrushes, they can certainly get sick from the germs you’ve left on it. The same applies to sharing toothpaste – don’t share the same toothpaste with someone that’s ill. Note: people with weakened immune systems may want to consider replacing their toothbrushes more often, especially after illnesses.

2. What about the germs that cause gingivitis? Cavities? Can’t they re-infect us or live on our toothbrush?

germs up closeYes they can… for a few hours to a few days (they last longer on wet bristles). Bacteria and fungi are different from most viruses in that regard. There are good and bad bacteria, but they don’t cause colds or flus, and you rinse them off when you rinse your toothbrush with tap water. Studies have found that even germs that cause Strep throat won’t usually survive. Oral germs left on your toothbrush are “anaerobic” (can’t survive in open oxygen-filled air), so allow it to dry in a bright, open area with air flow, and store it upright until air-dry between uses.

3. What kinds of bugs can live in our mouths, and on our toothbrushes?

Common oral microorganisms include Strep, Staph, e. Coli and yeast (e.g. Candida) – all of which have been found to survive on poorly-rinsed and still-moist toothbrushes for 48 hours or more.

4. I’ve seen special UV light sanitizers and toothbrush covers… do they help?

If you are determined to disinfect your toothbrush, there are toothbrush “sanitizers” that kill germs with UV light. But they don’t completely “sterilize” the toothbrush, just kill some lingering germs. However, dipping your bristles into antiseptic mouth-rinse (such as Listerine or ProHealth Rinse), or hydrogen peroxide will do the trick. You can also submerge the toothbrush head into boiling water (ideally with a little salt added), but the heat will soften the plastic – so be cautious.

5. What about toothpastes or antiseptic mouth-rinses? Can they help kill germs?

man pouring mouthwashSome toothpastes contain triclosan, which is better at killing oral bacteria than regular fluoride toothpastes do. Antiseptic rinses, such as over-the-counter Listerine and Colgate ProHealth rinse do well at killing mouth germs. Prescription Chlorhexidine rinse kills germs even better and longer. Gargling with Chlorhexidine, or warm salt water (try using Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, rather than simple white Sodium Chloride table salt) several times each day while sick can help improve healing of your mouth and throat, and may lessen duration of illness. Mouth washes, such as Scope, fall short compared to the others.

6. How should my family store our toothbrushes between brushings?

Don’t cover your toothbrush or store it in a tight closed container, because germs can grow easier in a dark, air-restricted environment. I recommend storing each toothbrush in its own space/slot, separated enough so that if one family member is sick, their germs won’t contaminate everyone else’s toothbrushes.

7. I’ve heard that toothbrushes can be breeding grounds for bathroom germs. Is that true?

Yes. I strongly recommend keeping it at least 1 foot away from the bathroom sink, because it can get contaminated from hand washing splash-back. It’s been discovered that toilet flushing with the lid open releases airborne droplets up to a foot away, containing fecal germs, that may settle on your toothbrushes if they are too close. So… close the toilet lid whenever you flush. Yuck… right?

8. I have a plastic toothbrush case that I use for travel. Does that qualify as a bad “closed container”?

Protective toothbrush cases are great at preventing bristles from being squashed in your luggage or travel kit. However, I highly recommend that you let your toothbrush dry in the open air, after using it and thoroughly rinsing with clean tap water, to prevent germs from lingering and breeding between the bristles.

9. How often SHOULD I change my toothbrush?

new and worn toothbrushesChange your toothbrush when the soft bristles start to become frayed, which is usually every 3-4 months (if you’re brushing 2-3 times each day). Once the bristles are bent and worn, they are much less effective at plaque removal. Some electric toothbrush heads have bristles with blue indicator on them – when the blue fades away, it’s time to change that head. Kids may need to have their toothbrush replaced more often than that because they tend to chew on their bristles.

10. I’ve been feeling dehydrated, with dry lips… so I’ve been using lots of lip balm while sick. What about lip balm?

Some lip balms contain anti-microbial ingredients, reducing the amount of germs thriving in them. And when you’re ill, and your lips are dry, lip balm can be a necessity. However, be sure to never share lip balm, lipstick (or any other makeup) with others, since infection with viruses like cold viruses and HSV-1 (oral herpes – cold sores) and bacteria responsible for strep throat are often spread this way.

If you have more questions regarding staying healthy and oral care, please contact us.


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