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What Causes Cavities Really?

Frustrated because you are brushing and flossing and doing everything we are telling you to do and you are STILL getting cavities? Why is it that someone I know never brushes their teeth and NEVER gets a cavity?

Development of dental decay is a dynamic process with many factors that play a roll. Brushing, flossing and proper maintenance is only part of the equation. Often the other factors are what are overlooked and equally as important in development of decay. Let’s look for a minute at how a cavity develops.

There is a bacteria that lives in the normal population of your mouth’s organisms called Streptococcus mutans. When you brush your teeth and floss, you remove this bacteria with the normal flora, but it quickly returns. This bacteria itself is not harmful, but every time you eat anything with sugar this bacteria produces acid as a byproduct. The acid etches your tooth like acid etches glass and damages the surface. This damage progresses slowly until you have a cavity that your dentist needs to fix. This bacteria is not present in everyone’s mouth as part of their flora so that is why some people can go a lifetime with bad habits and not develop a cavity.

There is sugar in most foods and the bacteria does not discriminate whether it came from a grape or a glass of milk or a candy bar. All sugar is taken up equally by the Streptococcus mutans and metabolized. So this being said, it is not possible to avoid eating sugar as part of your daily diet. After consuming any food containing sugar, processed or organic, the mineral in your saliva takes 30 minutes to neutralize the acidic environment causing damage to your teeth. The damage to the enamel of your teeth from the limited exposure is re-mineralized and there is no harm to the teeth. The scale remains balanced and cavities do not form.

What happens in this process that the scale would tip towards cavity formation? If you are ingesting a food or beverage with sugar over a long period of time, or are a frequent snacker you are dramatically increasing the amount of time your teeth are being exposed to the acid produced by the bacteria. For example if you take all morning to get through a cup of coffee containing cream or snack on one grape at a time while reading a book or doing chores, your teeth are going to be exposed to more acid causing demineralization. Your saliva will not have the time to adequately repair the damage before the next acid attack happens and the scale is tipped towards decay development.

So what can I do to event decay other than brushing and flossing and removing this harmful bacteria if there is sugar harming my teeth in even the healthy foods I eat? It is important to limit the amount of snacking you do on foods containing sugar. If you want to curl up with a good book and a snack choose a vegetable instead of a fruit. Rinsing your mouth with water will help neutralize the acid exposure to your teeth. Also giving your kids cheese or nuts that contains a healthy fat that coats and protects the teeth with fruit to create a layer of protection to any acid exposure is very helpful. Some medications can make your mouth very dry and limit the ability for your saliva to neutralize any acid attack can be very harmful. It is important to rehydrate the mouth with water instead of juice or any other sugar containing beverage. Chewing sugarless gum to stimulate saliva flow is also very helpful. If you are still having decay develop ask your dentist about products we can give you to add the mineral back into the teeth and neutralize acid exposure.

If you remember these three things; brush and floss your teeth regularly, especially at night to give your teeth the full 8 hours while you are sleeping to re-mineralize; limit exposure to sugar by snacking on foods not containing sugar or be mindful of the time you are taking eating these foods; and visit your dentist regularly to identify any small problems early to discuss strategies to reverse these processes before an actual procedure is necessary; you will be smiling at your next check up!!

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