You’ve been hearing about cavities probably since your first Halloween — when you wanted to eat that whole bag of candy and go to bed without brushing. But have you ever stopped to wonder what a cavity actually is, what causes it, and how to prevent them? You’ve heard that it’s the sugar, and if you were watching TV in the 90s, you probably remember that commercial where they leave a human tooth in a vial of soda for a few weeks, but is that all there is to know?
It may be surprising, but those little holes that form on your tooth causing a bunch of issues are actually pretty complicated. If you want to learn more, this guide is for you.
Cavities Are More Like Bacterial Infections
As it turns out, it’s not the sugar that rots your tooth but a group of bacteria already living inside your mouth. Before we blame it all on them, let’s make one thing clear: bacteria aren’t bad or good. We’ve been living with them for millions of years and the partnerships we’ve formed have allowed us to do some pretty incredible stuff, including digesting cheese, grain, and meat. Without them, 97 percent of life on earth would die, with us closely behind.
That being said, our mouths are like gardens. If we neglect them, they will grow weeds and other unseemly things. Cavities are a result of this. When parasitic bacteria bacteria, such as streptococcus mutans, get out of control, trouble begins. Eating sugar or simple starch feeds this strain of bacteria, and when it has food, it multiplies, creating an acidic byproduct that eats away our enamel. Once our enamel is gone, these bacteria will eventually creep into our dentin.
Cavities Form Under the Right Circumstances
Just like weeds in a garden, cavities must have a few sets of circumstances in order to form. These bacteria need food and also timing. If you want to stop cavities from forming, cutting out sugar will probably not do it. It takes a serious commitment to achieve a completely sugar-free diet. Although cutting down on sugar will certainly help with more serious conditions like heart disease and can reduce your risk of cavities, it won’t stop them completely. What’s more helpful is understand that bacteria like to work on a schedule. As soon as they encounter sugar, it will take them between thirty-minutes to an hour to break down this down, which is why it’s important to brush and floss immediately after a meal — or to save desert until last. If you’ve found yourself without a toothbrush, washing your mouth out with water can also be helpful.
Cavities and Gum Disease Are Partners
Streptococcus mutans don’t only damage teeth, they damage gums, as well. The same acidic byproduct that causes cavities, can also cause low grade inflammation in the gum tissue that can lead to periodontal disease (which, incidentally, is also linked to heart disease). Because periodontal disease can increase your chances of heart disease, stroke, and cancer, it should be taken seriously. Visiting a dentist every six months, the standard recommendation by the American dental association, can help to keep both cavities and gum disease at bay. If you are showing symptoms, your dentist can help to treat your mouth as needed.