Healthy teeth and gums contribute to your overall physical wellness, so it's important to switch out your toothbrush regularly.
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three toothbrushes in glass cup
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Oral health is often considered separate from our overall physical wellness, but it is absolutely connected to other parts of our bodies. From your heart to you sinuses and more, plaque build-up and oral infections impact systems well beyond your mouth. You probably know that brushing your teeth twice a day is the best way to stay on top of your oral hygiene, but you can't brush your teeth with just any old toothbrush and expect optimal results. Ultimately, toothbrushes aren't effective forever: After too much use, they become worn down and stop removing plaque and bacteria as thoroughly. "The oral cavity is the gateway to the body, and you don't want to expose your gums, teeth, or body to an old, dirty toothbrush," explains Kendra J. Zappia, DDS and Morgan M. Fryer, DDS of Zappia & Fryer General Dentistry. So when exactly is a toothbrush too old or dirty? Ahead, we asked the experts how often you should replace your toothbrush—and what happens if you don't.

When to Replace Your Toothbrush

The American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend that you replace your toothbrush every three to four months. Dr. Zappia and Dr. Fryer suggest a cadence of every three months, and point out a few signs that indicate its time to replace your toothbrush—even if three months haven't yet passed. "If you have been sick—especially in the era of COVID-19—or notice the bristles are starting to fray, swap out the old toothbrush for a new one," they say. The same goes for electric toothbrushes. "Replace an electric toothbrush head every three months or after illness or signs of wear," explain Dr. Zappia and Dr. Fryer. You may find that you need to replace your electric toothbrush head even sooner. "These heads clean your teeth with quick rotation or vibration, and the nylon bristles are shorter than those on a manual toothbrush, so they can wear or fray more quickly," add Dr. Fryer and Dr. Zappia.

The good news is that, while you may have to replace these heads more quickly, the electric toothbrush base should last for quite some time, says Dr. Greg Grillo of Express Dentist. Plus, you can often buy several replacement heads in a single pack so they're more affordable, and you can schedule regularly deliveries of them as well, Dr. Grillo notes. Finally, Dr. Zappia and Dr. Fryer suggest setting a three-month reminder in your phone or on your calendar so you remember to switch to a new head or brush when it's time.

Pay Attention to Your Toothbrush's Bristles and Your Health

Toothbrush bristles are specifically designed to help you clean plaque—and are rendered ineffective when they are compromised. So, what should you check your brush for? "Change your brush when the angle of the bristles resemble the branches of a palm tree—instead of straight like a picket fence," says Dr. Howard Katz of Dentox, which means non-vertical or splayed out bristles are a no-go. However, Dr. Grillo shares that the damage may appear minimal at the three-month mark, so don't expect anything too dramatic. "If the bristles are going in multiple directions, that's also an indication you're brushing too hard," Dr. Grillo adds. Additionally, some toothbrushes have "indicator bristles," which start to change color to signify that it's time for a swap, say Dr. Zappia and Dr. Fryer. Typically, these bristles will be a dark color when initially purchased, then begin to fade after continued use.

Why It's Unhealthy to Use the Same Toothbrush for Too Long

"Most cavities and gum disease start between teeth, and bent bristles do not clean between teeth," Dr. Katz says. If your toothbrush bristles cannot effectively remove plaque, excessive bacteria can lead to gum disease over time, which can cause your gums to recede, swell, and bleed. The bristles themselves can also injure your mouth. "Worn-out bristles become more abrasive and harm one's gums, leading to gingivitis and gums that may end up receding, bleeding, and swelling," says Dr. Joseph Salim, DMD of Sutton Place Dental Associates. Germs can also build up in damaged bristles and can contribute to oral infections. Or germs may even enter your bloodstream through any open cuts in your gums, Dr. Salim adds.

How to Keep Your Toothbrush in Good Condition

First thing's first: No matter what, you need to replace your toothbrush every three months, says Dr. Izbel Aksit of Longevita, adding that caring correctly for your toothbrush is important, too. "Proper cleaning and storage of toothbrushes can extend their life," says Dr. Michele Bishop, DDS of Ingram Hills Dental. "The toothbrush should always be rinsed with water after use and placed in an area where it can air dry. Do not store toothbrushes in a closed container since it will not allow the toothbrush to dry before bacteria begins to form." Do not store your brush in a position that could smash the bristles, and don't try to clean the bristles with mouth wash, disinfectants, or boiling water, since these chemicals and temperatures can cause major damage to your brush.

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