Beyond Teeth: What’s Inside Your Mouth
By Connie Brichford | Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
Good oral health goes beyond brushing and flossing. Find out more about the inside of your mouth and the role its various structures play in speech and digestion.
Your mouth is made up of more than just teeth, so good oral health goes beyond simply brushing and flossing. In addition to your teeth, your mouth is made up of gums, oral mucosa, the upper and lower jaw, the tongue, salivary glands, the uvula, and the frenulum. All of these structures play an important role when it comes to good dental health and are routinely examined when you receive dental care.
The Oral Mucosa
When you open your mouth and look in the mirror, everything that isn’t a tooth is covered by a protective lining called the oral mucosa, which is a mucous membrane similar to the mucous membranes that line your nostrils and inner ears.
The oral mucosa plays an essential role in maintaining your oral health, as well as your overall health, by defending your body from germs and other irritants that enter your mouth. A tough substance called keratin, also found in your fingernails and hair, helps make the oral mucosa resistant to injury.
Your gums are the pinkish tissue that surrounds and supports your teeth. Also covered by oral mucosa, gums play a critical role in your oral health. Healthy gums are firm, cover the entire root of the tooth, and do not bleed when brushed, poked, or prodded. Gum disease can ultimately lead to tooth loss, so taking care of your gums by flossing daily is just as essential to dental care as brushing your teeth.
The Upper and Lower Jaw
Your jaws give your face its shape and your mouth the structure it needs for chewing and speech. Human jaws are made up of several bones: The upper jaw contains two bones that are fused to each other and to the rest of your skull, while the lower jawbone is separate from the rest of the skull, enabling it to move up and down when you speak and chew.
The tongue is a powerful muscle covered in specialized mucosal tissue that includes your taste buds. The tongue is not just important to your oral health — it’s also considered an integral part of the body’s digestive system — it’s responsible for moving food to your teeth, and when chewed food is ready to be swallowed, the tongue moves it to the back of the throat so it can proceed into the esophagus. In babies, the tongue and the jaw work together to enable the infant to breastfeed.Additionally, the tongue plays an essential role in the ability to speak by shaping the sounds that come out of your mouth.
The Salivary Glands
You have three sets of salivary glands in your mouth and neck: the parotid, submandibular, and sublingual glands. These glands produce saliva, which contains special enzymes that help break down food, making it easier for you to swallow. Saliva is critical to good oral health, because it protects your teeth and gums by rinsing away food particles and bacteria and by helping to counteract acidic foods that can wear down the protective enamel on your teeth.
The uvula is the small flap of tissue which hangs down at the back of your throat. The uvula is composed of muscle fibers as well as connective and glandular tissues. Like other soft tissue structures in the mouth, the uvula is covered by oral mucosa. The uvula has long been a source of curiosity for scientists as all of its functions are not yet fully understood. However, it seems to play some role in speech and in keeping the mouth and throat moist.
The Frenulum Linguae
The frenulum is a flap of oral mucosa that connects the tongue to the floor of the mouth. This tissue allows the tongue to move about as it does its job. If an infant is born with a frenulum that is too short, or not elastic enough, he or she can have trouble breastfeeding. A short frenulum can also affect speech.
The next time you’re brushing your teeth, spend a minute looking at the parts of the mouth that lie farther inside the oral cavity. Knowing what these structures do and what they look like can help you to maintain optimal oral health.