Tooth Decay

Scientific explanation

Tooth decay, also called dental caries, is a common dental disease and affects nearly everyone. But what is it that causes cavities? How can you prevent it? Is there more than just brushing and avoiding sugar? If you are interested in the scientific explanation of these questions – so that you can learn how to live without decay – keep reading!

Fact #1 – Bacteria cause tooth decay

There are hundreds of different types of bacteria found on your teeth. They live in the grooves and crevices found on the tooth surface. They can even stick to the smooth surfaces of your teeth, like along the gumline. The “scum” that you can feel or see on your teeth after a long day is made up of bacteria and the sticky glue-like substances that they make. This is called plaque. When the bacteria in plaque are exposed to carbohydrates – from your meal – they soak it up and begin to eat, reproduce, and make acid as a by-product. The acid is the worst news – this acid can eat away at your tooth surface if the conditions are right.

Fact #2 – Acid makes holes in your teeth

Many things can affect whether or not the acid made by bacteria will cause a cavity or hole to form in your tooth. Some areas of the tooth are more susceptible, like the grooves on the chewing surface. Some teeth are less dense, or have fewer minerals. A higher amount of fluoride in the surface layers of the tooth can resist acid better. But the secret here… is that all teeth get a little damage from acid…the key is to be able to repair it.

Fact #3 – Your body can repair damage from decay

As soon as bacteria are making acid on the tooth, your body is working to help. Your saliva is full of buffers, minerals, and immune system components which help to neutralize the acid, repair damaged tooth structure, and limit the growth of the bacteria. The quality and quantity of saliva is VERY important to prevent decay.

Fact #4 – You can control the cycle of damage vs. repair

There are two basic ways to swing the tooth decay cycle in your favor. One way is to reduce the acid production. You can brush and floss the bacterial plaque off your teeth. You can avoid the sugars that the bacteria love. Their favorite is sucrose – found in table sugar, pop, candy, sugared gum and mints. However, they also can thrive on more natural sugars like fructose and starches – so even fruit juice or other foods can be a problem. The key is to limit the amount of time, and the number of times that you eat or drink anything. This means you CAN have a pop or juice, but just don’t sip on it for a long time. Have it during your lunch or dinner and then be done with it. Between meals stick to calorie free things like water, an occasional diet soda, or sugarless gum. Of course not everyone can follow these dietary rules – check with your doctor.

The second way to prevent decay is to give your body a good chance to repair the damage. Be sure to eat a healthy diet so that your saliva is of good quality. You can stimulate saliva flow by chewing a piece of sugarless gum. Some gum contains xylitol, a natural sugar alcohol, which slows down the decay causing bacteria. Also, fluoride applied to the teeth in the form of toothpaste makes them more resistant to decay.

Get professional help

We can create a customized plan for you using these ideas and more. We can tell which cavities can be healed by your own body, and which can’t. With a combination of dental treatment and your own decay-free plan, you can be healthy.

What does it look like?
In this picture, you can see all stages of tooth decay.

  • The white chalky areas around the gum line are the beginning of decay (Please note that sometimes other conditions can look like this too, so please ask your dentist about your situation)
    The brownish stains are a little more advanced.
    The brownish hole on the upper tooth is a cavity. It is too far advanced to be healed, it must have a filling.

What is my risk?
Some people have a higher risk for decay than others. See if you have any of the high risk factors:

  • Had dental work due to decay in the past 3 years
    Frequent snacking/drinking
    Brush less than twice a day
    Flossing rarely/occasionally
    Exposed roots/receding gums
    Genetic tooth abnormalities
    Children/teens
    Wearing braces
    Drug or alcohol abuse
    Eating disorders

Extremely high risk:

  • Dry mouth
    Radiation/chemo treatment

Your daily home care routine depends on your risk for decay. We can recommend a regimen to help keep you healthy.