Other than the common cold, tooth decay is the most prevalent disease in the world. And while a cavity or two may seem like a minor matter, tooth decay’s full destructive potential is anything but trivial. Without proper prevention and treatment, tooth decay can cause pain, tooth loss and, in rare cases, even death.
This common disease begins with bacteria in the mouth. Though these microscopic organisms’ presence is completely normal and at times beneficial, certain strains cause problems: they consume left over carbohydrates in the mouth like sugar and produce acid as a byproduct. The higher the levels of bacteria the higher the amount of acid, which disrupts the mouth’s normal neutral pH.
This is a problem because acid is the primary enemy of enamel, the teeth’s hard protective outer shell. Acid causes enamel to lose its mineral content (de-mineralization), eventually producing cavities. Saliva neutralizes acid that arises normally after we eat, but if the levels are too high for too long this process can be overwhelmed. The longer the enamel is exposed to acid, the more it softens and dissolves.
While tooth decay is a global epidemic, dental advances of the last century have made it highly preventable. The foundation for prevention is fluoride in toothpaste and effective oral hygiene — daily brushing and flossing to removing plaque, a thin film of food remnant on teeth that’s a feeding ground for bacteria, along with regular dental visits for more thorough cleaning and examination. This regular regimen should begin in infancy when teeth first appear in the mouth. For children especially, further prevention measures in the form of sealants or topical fluoride applications performed in the dentist office can provide added protection for those at higher risk.
You can also help your preventive measures by limiting sugar or other carbohydrates in your family’s diet, and eating more fresh vegetables, fruit and dairy products, especially as snacks. Doing so reduces food sources for bacteria, which will lower their multiplication and subsequently the amount of acid produced.
In this day and age, tooth decay isn’t a given. Keeping it at bay, though, requires a personal commitment to effective hygiene, lifestyle choices and regular dental care. Doing these things will help ensure you and your family’s teeth remain free from this all too common disease.
If you would like more information on preventing and treating tooth decay, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Decay.”
More than likely your great-grandparents, grandparents and even your parents had a common dental experience: when one of their teeth developed a cavity, their dentist removed the decayed portion (and maybe a little more) through drilling and then filled the cavity. In other words, treatment was mainly reactive—fix the problem when it occurred, then fix it again if it reoccurred.
You may have had similar experiences—but the chances are good your dentist’s approach is now quite different. Today’s tooth decay treatment is much more proactive: address first the issues that cause tooth decay, and if it does occur treat it with an eye on preventing it in the future.
This approach depends on maintaining equilibrium between two sets of competing factors that influence how your teeth may encounter tooth decay. This is known as the caries balance (caries being another name for tooth decay). On one side are factors that increase the risk of decay, known by the acronym BAD: Bad Bacteria that produce acid that dissolves the minerals in tooth enamel; Absence of Saliva, the body’s natural acid neutralizer; and Dietary Habits, especially foods with added sugars that feed bacteria, and acid that further weakens enamel.
There are also factors that decrease the risk of tooth decay, known by the acronym SAFE: Saliva and Sealants, which focuses on methods to boost low salivary flow and cover chewing surfaces prone to decay with sealant materials; Antimicrobials, rinses or other substances that reduce bad bacteria populations and encourage the growth of beneficial strains; Fluoride, increased intake or topical applications of this known enamel-strengthening chemical; and Effective Diet, reducing the amount and frequency of sugary or acidic foods and replacing them with more dental-friendly choices.
In effect, we employ a variety of techniques and materials that inhibit BAD factors and support SAFE ones. The foundation for prevention, though, remains the same as it was for past family generations—practice effective oral hygiene by brushing and flossing daily and regular dental cleanings and checkups to keep bacterial plaque from accumulating and growing. Your own diligent daily care rounds out this more effective way that could change your family history of tooth decay for you and future generations.