Our mouths are alive with bacteria. Hundreds of different types live on our teeth, gums, tongue and other places in our mouths. Some bacteria are helpful, but some can be harmful — such as those that play a role in the tooth decay process. Tooth decay is the result of an infection with certain types of bacteria that use sugars in food to make acids. Over time, these acids can make a cavity in the tooth.
What happens inside our mouths?
Dental plaque, a sticky, colorless form of bacteria, along with foods and drinks that contain sugar or starch (i.e., milk, bread, cookies, soda, juice), all cause bacteria to produce acids that break down the tooth’s enamel.
Minerals in our saliva (such as calcium and phosphate), along with fluoride from toothpaste and fluoridated water, help enamel repair itself by replacing the minerals lost during a bacterial attack.
How does a cavity start?
When a tooth is exposed to acid frequently — for example, if you eat or drink often, especially foods or drinks containing sugar and starches — the repeated exposure to acid causes the enamel to continue to lose minerals. A white spot may appear where minerals have been lost. This is a sign of early decay.
Tooth decay can be stopped or reversed at this point. Enamel can repair itself by using minerals from saliva and fluoride from toothpaste or other sources. But if the tooth decay process continues, more minerals are lost. Eventually, the enamel is weakened and destroyed, forming a cavity — permanent damage that a dentist has to repair with a filling.
How can I ward off cavities?
Use fluoride. Fluoride is a mineral that can prevent tooth decay from progressing. It can even reverse, or stop, early tooth decay.
- Fluoride prevents mineral loss in tooth enamel and replaces lost minerals.
- It reduces the ability of bacteria to make acid.
You can get fluoride by:
- Drinking fluoridated water from a community water supply; about 74 percent of Americans served by a community water supply system receive fluoridated water.
- Brushing with a fluoride toothpaste
If your dentist thinks you need more fluoride, he or she may:
- Apply a fluoride gel or varnish to tooth surfaces
- Prescribe fluoride tablets
- Recommend using a fluoride mouth rinse
- Limit between-meal snacks. This reduces the number of acid attacks on teeth and gives teeth a chance to repair themselves.
- Save candy, cookies, soda, and other sugary drinks for special occasions.
- Limit fruit juice.
- Make sure not to eat or drink anything with sugar in it after bedtime tooth brushing. Saliva flow decreases during sleep. Without enough saliva, teeth are less able to repair themselves after an acid attack.
- Don’t smoke. It’s a leading vcause of tooth decay and gum disease.
- Make sure you brush! Electric toothbrushes are more effective at removing plaque than manual brushes.
- Brushing with fluoride toothpaste two times each day is important for preventing cavities.
Be sure to supervise young children when they brush. Here’s what you should know:
- For children aged three to six, you put the toothpaste on the brush. Use only a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. (In children under age two, dental experts recommend that you do not use fluoride toothpaste unless a doctor or dentist tells you to).
- Encourage your child to spit out the toothpaste rather than swallow it. Children under six tend to swallow much of the toothpaste on their brush. If children regularly consume higher-than-recommended amounts of fluoride during the teeth-forming years, their permanent teeth may develop white lines or flecks called dental fluorosis. Fluorosis is usually mild; in many cases, only a dental professional would notice it.
- Until they are seven or eight years old, you will need to help your child brush. Young children cannot get their teeth clean by themselves. Try brushing your child’s teeth first, then let them finish.
Talk to your dentist about sealants
Dental sealants are another good way to help avoid a cavity. Sealants are thin, plastic coatings painted onto the chewing surfaces of the back teeth, or molars. Here’s why sealants are helpful: The chewing surfaces of back teeth are rough and uneven because they have small pits and grooves. Food and bacteria can get stuck in the pits and grooves and stay there a long time because toothbrush bristles can’t easily brush them away. Sealants cover these surfaces and form a barrier that protects teeth and prevents food and bacteria from getting trapped there.
Since most cavities in children and adolescents develop in the molars (the back teeth), it’s best to get these teeth sealed as soon as they come in:
- The first permanent molars, called “six-year molars,” come in between the ages of five and seven.
- The second permanent molars, called “12-year molars,” come in when a child is between 11 and 14 years old.
Get regular check-ups
Visit a dentist regularly for cleanings and an examination. During the visit the dentist or hygienist will:
- Remove dental plaque
- Check for any areas of early tooth decay
- Show you and your child how to thoroughly clean the teeth
- Apply a fluoride gel or varnish, if necessary
- Schedule your next regular check-up
Is it time to see your dentist? Contact us for an appointment today!
Information provided by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.