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A Nasty Brush with Germs

Source: Michael Precker, The Dallas Morning News

It lurks in your home's least sanitary room, a magnet and a breeding ground for nasty germs. Then its ends become jagged and sharp, turning a seemingly innocuous tool into an ideal delivery system for bad, bad things. So should we throw that toothbrush away?

Yes, says Dr. Tom Glass of Oklahoma State University, much more often than we do now. Get a new brush every two weeks, he says, and you'll probably be healthier. Other oral hygiene experts call Glass - a pathology professor and a practicing dentist - an alarmist who shouldn't be scaring people into neglecting their teeth. The problems really start, Glass says; when the nylon bristles start to degrade. He says that can make them more porous - and hospitable to germs - and make the ends sharp. Those sharp ends, he warns, can puncture your gums and deliver germs into the bloodstream. He figures those bristles can become untrustworthy after as little as two weeks, which is why he recommends a new brush on the 1st and 15th of each month. Glass - who's not in the toothbrush business - is convinced that using brushes for too long can increase the risk of colds, mouth sores and other maladies. "People say, `Oh, I can't afford all those toothbrushes,' but it's a false economy," he says. "For most people, one day missing work costs a lot more." None of this has persuaded the American Dental Association to alter its longtime recommendation: Get a new toothbrush every three or four months. "We can't say that Glass is wrong," says Dr. Clifford Whall, director of product acceptance for the ADA's Council on Scientific Affairs. "But millions of people are using toothbrushes all the time and they seem to be surviving." The reason to change toothbrushes, according to the ADA, is because they wear out and don't clean plaque off your teeth as effectively as before. Plaque, Whall says, poses a much greater threat to your health than anything on your toothbrush. "Anything you can do to decrease bacteria might be a good idea, but for your average dental patients, we haven't seen any evidence that this is a problem," he says. Murdock says disinfected toothbrushes are especially important for people who have weakened immune systems caused by HIV, chemotherapy or other illnesses. In that instance, Dr. Al-Arab says, he may have a point. "People with immune problems need to be very cautious," he says. "But for the general public, you've got plenty of bacteria in your mouth and your body. They live there and that's normal." Rinse out your toothbrush, Al-Arab says, make sure it dries out - and don't use anyone else's brush that may have germs you're not immune to. The American Dental Association advocates changing toothbrushes every three or four months and does not always believe that bacteria pose a health hazard in normal circumstances. But if you're the cautious type, here are some steps you can take. Like chicken soup, it may not help - but it can't hurt.
• Don't share toothbrushes, and keep your brush separate from others.
• Rinse it well and leave it in the open air to dry, possibly on a windowsill, where sunlight can help.
• Take an extra step. The Purebrush Antibacterial Toothbrush Purifier is sold for $79.95 at purebrush.com.
• Buy brushes with soft bristles. Hard bristles can damage tooth enamel. Everybody agrees on this.

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