Behind your smile: What's your mouth made of?

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Behind your smile: What's your mouth made of?

From teeth to tongue, a look at what's inside your mouth.

Your mouth is perhaps one of the most multifunctional parts of your body. You use it to speak, eat, kiss and smile. With such important functions, keeping a healthy mouth is key to keeping a happy mouth. Understand your mouth's main components — your teeth, gums, tongue and salivary glands — to help you stay on the right track.

Teeth: Help with digestion

Of your mouth's many functions, three of the most essential are biting, chewing and swallowing food. The most important tools in this process are your teeth.

Each of your teeth consists of a visible portion called the crown and a hidden portion below the gumline called the root. The surface of a healthy crown is covered with enamel, a thin layer of calcified material that's the hardest substance in the body. The outer surface of the root is covered by cementum. The periodontal ligament, a connective tissue, binds root cementum to the bone that forms the tooth socket.

Beneath the enamel and cementum lies the body of the inner tooth (dentin). Dentin is softer than enamel and cementum, but it's harder than bone. It surrounds the hollow tooth core (called the pulp canal or root canal), an area where nerve endings and blood vessels sensitize and nourish the tooth. Nerves and vessels feed into the pulp canal through an opening at the root tip.

Healthy tooth

Illustration of a healthy tooth

Each of your teeth — most people have 32 of them — consists of the crown and root. A healthy tooth is protected by hard, white enamel and firm, pink gums (gingiva).

Gums: Pink means healthy

Firm, pink gums (gingiva) surround a healthy tooth. At the edge of your gumline, your gum tissue folds back underneath itself before connecting to your teeth. This creates a snug, 1- to 3-millimeter groove called the gingival sulcus around each tooth.

Tongue: Responsible for tasting to talking

Your tongue is a muscular organ covered by a mucous membrane. Small bumps called papillae cover its upper surface. Between the papillae are your taste buds, which provide your sense of taste. In addition to helping you taste food, your tongue moves food to aid with chewing and swallowing. It's also an extremely important element in speaking.

Salivary glands: Aid digestion and help prevent decay

Three major sets of salivary glands as well as numerous smaller glands exist throughout your mouth. These glands produce and secrete saliva, which serves several purposes. It aids in swallowing and contains enzymes that help with digestion. Saliva also protects your mouth from decay and disease in several different ways. It flushes food away from your mouth, helps neutralize acids that can eat away at teeth, directly kills or inhibits disease-causing organisms, replenishes minerals in your tooth enamel and helps to heal wounds.

Maintaining a healthy mouth

Keep speaking, eating, kissing and smiling with confidence. Understand what each part of your mouth does, and practice good oral hygiene habits.

Last Updated: 02/18/2005
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