Dental plaque can wreak havoc on your mouth. It’s an invisible, sticky film that develops on your teeth — and it’s teeming with dangerous bacteria. When this bacteria comes into contact with food (especially carbohydrate-loaded, sugary foods), it produces a powerful acid that can damage your tooth enamel and create tooth decay, cavities and even gum disease like gingivitis.

When it’s fresh on your teeth, plaque can be easily kept at bay with a little good dental hygiene — frequent brushing and flossing. Once it sits for a while, whether in a hard-to-reach spot or due to bad brushing habits, it hardens into tartar, which sticks to your teeth and continues to damage them — and is impossible to remove without the use of dental tools.

Want to know more about plaque and how to manage it? Here’s everything you need to know to do battle with plaque — and win.

The Causes of Plaque Buildup

A little plaque is always present on your teeth — even if you’re the most fastidious brusher around. But it will become problematic to your dental health if you’re eating a lot of sugary or starchy foods, such as sodas, candy, cake or sticky fruits like raisins. “Eating too many sweets and starchy snacks causes excessive plaque buildup,” says Elaine Swingle, DMD, a dentist at Great Smiles in Westfield, N.J. “The bacteria create a film on your teeth, and with more sweets in your diet, you get more plaque.”

What Does Plaque Do to My Teeth?

Plaque does absolutely nothing good for your teeth. It’s that fuzzy, filmy layer you feel on unbrushed teeth — and it’s simply waiting for a little food to fuel some serious damage to your teeth. “The bacteria in your mouth feed off food, and they produce acid that causes decay,” Dr. Swingle says. Once the acid gets through the tooth enamel, it can create cavities and other damage to your teeth — and it can cause gum disease like gingivitis.

If the plaque sits too long on your teeth — whether it’s in an out-of-the-way spot or you don’t brush as you should — it creates hardened deposits called tartar on your teeth, which attract more plaque and cannot be removed with a standard brush. You need to use a dentist’s tools to scrape it away.

Signs of Excessive Plaque

You can’t see plaque, but there are ways you can tell if you have an excessive amount. Look for any of the following warning signs:

  • Your teeth feel slimy or fuzzy when you touch them with your tongue.
  • You have bad breath.
  • Your gums are sore or bleed when you brush or floss.
  • Your dentist needs to spend extra time scaling away the tartar deposits.
  • You get cavities frequently.

Stop Excessive Plaque From Building Up

Proper dental hygiene can help combat the plaque buildup. That means you need to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss once every day to remove any food particles and help dislodge some of the bacteria. You’ll want to be especially mindful of brushing immediately after eating if you indulge in sugary or starchy foods, as those foods tend to promote excessive plaque buildup.

Eating crunchy fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, celery and apples, can help “brush” away plaque, too. These foods pull plaque away as you crunch and chew on them. That makes these foods a smart (and healthy) snack when you can’t brush right after you eat.

How Your Dentist Can Help With Plaque Buildup

Your dentist can help you keep plaque at bay during your twice-yearly dental checkups. He can sweep away any hardened plaque deposits and give your teeth a thorough cleaning. Your dentist can also check for any signs of tooth decay or gum disease — and treat the issue before it becomes a more serious problem.

If plaque buildup and tooth decay are serious problems for you, your dentist may recommend applying a protective sealant to your teeth. This thin layer of plastic can be applied to your teeth — especially the chewing surfaces on the molars, where food tends to get trapped — to help protect them from damage caused by plaque, and keep cavities at bay.

With plenty of good dental hygiene and smart diet choices, you should be able to avoid serious plaque buildup — and help prevent the tooth decay, cavities and gum disease that can come with it.