Tooth decay: a preventable disease

WHAT IS TOOTH DECAY, AND WHAT CAUSES IT?

Tooth decay is the disease known as caries or cavities.  Unlike other diseases, however, caries is not life threatening and is highly preventable, though it affects most people to some degree during their lifetime.

Tooth decay occurs when your teeth are frequently exposed to foods containing carbohydrates (starches and sugars) like soda pop, candy, ice cream, milk, cakes, and juices.  Natural bacteria live in your mouth and form plaque.  The plaque interacts with deposits left on your teeth from sugary and starchy foods to produce acids.  These acids damage tooth enamel over time by dissolving, or demineralizing, the mineral structure of teeth, producing tooth decay and weakening the teeth.

HOW ARE CAVITIES PREVENTED?

The acids formed by plaque can be counteracted by simple saliva in your mouth, which acts as a buffer and remineralizing agent.  Dentists often recommend chewing sugarless gum to stimulate your flow of saliva.  However, though it is the body’s natural defense against cavities, saliva alone is not sufficient to combat tooth decay.

The best way to prevent caries is to brush and floss regularly.  To rebuild the early damage caused by plaque bacteria, we use fluoride, a natural substance which helps to remineralize the tooth structure.  Fluoride is added to toothpaste to fight cavities and clean teeth.  The most common source of fluoride is in the water we drink.  Fluoride is added to most community water supplies and to many bottled and canned beverages.

If you are at medium to high risk for cavities, your dentist may recommend special high concentration fluoride gels, mouth rinses, or dietary fluoride supplements.  Your dentist may also use professional strength anti-cavity varnish, or sealants – thin, plastic coatings that provides an extra barrier against food and debris.

WHO IS AT RISK FOR CAVITIES?

Because we all carry bacteria in your mouths, everyone is at risk for cavities.  Those with diet high in carbohydrates and sugary foods and those who live in communities without fluoridated water are likely candidates for cavities.  And because the area around a restored portion of a tooth is a good breeding ground for bacteria, those with a lot of fillings have a higher chance of developing tooth decay.