Keeping you up to date with the latest dental information.
Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
Bleach Your Teeth
Dentures: Get Your Smile Back
Extraction of Wisdom Teeth
Fluoride and Your Health
Nutrition & Dental Health
Porcelain Laminate Veneers
Pregnancy and Oral Health
Root Canal Therapy
Temporomandibular Disorders TMJ/TMD
The Right Time for Braces
Tooth Decay: A Preventable Disease
Women's Dental Health
Your Child's First Dental Visit
Your Child's Teeth and Gums: Tips for Parents
Tooth Decay: A Preventable Disease
What is tooth decay, and what causes it?
Tooth decay is the disease known as caries or cavities. Unlike other diseases,
however, caries is not life threatening and is highly preventable, though it affects
most people to some degree during their lifetime. Tooth decay occurs when your
teeth are frequently exposed to foods containing carbohydrates (starches and sugars)
like soda pop, candy, ice cream, milk, cakes, and even fruits, vegetables and
juices. Natural bacteria live in your mouth and form plaque. The plaque interacts
with deposits left on your teeth from sugary and starchy foods to produce acids.
These acids damage tooth enamel over time by dissolving, or demineralizing, the
mineral structure of teeth, producing tooth decay and weakening the teeth.
How are cavities prevented?
The acids formed by plaque can be counteracted by simple saliva in your mouth,
which acts as a buffer and remineralizing agent. Dentists often recommend chewing
sugarless gum to stimulate your flow of saliva. However, though it is the body's
natural defense against cavities, saliva alone is not sufficient to combat tooth
decay. The best way to prevent caries is to brush and floss regularly. To rebuild
the early damage caused by plaque bacteria, we use fluoride, a natural substance
which helps to remineralize the tooth structure. Fluoride is added to toothpaste
to fight cavities and clean teeth. The most common source of fluoride is in the
water we drink. Fluoride is added to most community water supplies and to many
bottled and canned beverages.
If you are at medium to high risk for cavities, your dentist may recommend special
high concentration fluoride gels, mouth rinses, or dietary fluoride supplements.
Your dentist may also use professional strength anti-cavity varnish, or sealants
-thin, plastic coatings- that provide an extra barrier against food and debris.
Who is at risk for cavities?
Because we all carry bacteria in our mouths, everyone is at risk for cavities.
Those with a diet high in carbohydrates and sugary foods; and, those who live
in communities without fluoridated water, are likely candidates for cavities.
And because the area around a restored portion of a tooth is a good breeding ground
for bacteria, those with a lot of fillings have a higher chance of developing
tooth decay. Children and senior citizens are the two groups at highest risk for
What can I do to help protect my teeth?
The best way to combat cavities is to follow three simple steps:
1. Cut down on sweets and between-meal snacks. Remember, it's these sugary and
starchy treats that put your teeth at extra risk.
2. Brush after every meal and floss daily. Cavities most often begin in hard-to-clean
areas between teeth and in the fissures and pits - the edges in the tooth crown
and gaps between teeth. Hold the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle and brush inside,
outside and between your teeth and on the top of your tongue. Be sure the bristles
are firm, not bent, and replace the toothbrush after a few weeks to safeguard
against reinfecting your mouth with old bacteria than can collect on the brush.
Only buy toothpastes and rinses that contain fluoride (antiseptic rinses also
help remove plaque) and that bear the American Dental Association seal of acceptance
logo on the package. Children under six should only use a small pea-sized dab
of toothpaste on the brush and should spit out as much as possible because a child's
developing teeth are sensitive to higher fluoride levels. Finally, be cause caries
is a transmittable disease, toothbrushes should never be shared, especially with
3. See your dentist at least every six months for checkups and professional cleanings.
Because cavities can be difficult to detect a thorough dental examination is very
important. If you get a painful toothache, if your
teeth are very sensitive to hot or cold foods, or if you notice signs of decay
like white spots, tooth discolorations or cavities, make an appointment right
away. The longer you wait to treat infected teeth the more intensive and lengthy
the treatment will be. Left neglected, cavities can lead to root canal infection,
permanent deterioration of decayed tooth substance and even loss of the tooth
Sources: The medical management of dental caries, by Burton L Edelstein, DDS,
Journal of the American Dental Association, Jan. 1994; How severe is the threat
of caries to old teeth? By M.I. MacEntee, et al., Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry,
May 1994; Tooth decay, American Dental Association, 1994; Modern management of
dental caries: the cutting edge is not the dental bur, by Maxwell H. Anderson,
DDS, et. al., JADA, June 1993; Changing paradigms in caries management, by Maxwell
H. Anderson, DDS, Periodontology and Restorative Dentistry, March 1992; Preventing
dental caries: breaking the chain of transmission, by Ernest Newbrun, DMD, JADA,
June 1992; Prevention of dental caries, by Andrew J. Rugg-Gunn, Dental Uptake,
Jan/Feb 1990; Preventive dentistry: dental caries, by John C. Greene, DMD, et.
Al., Journal of the American Dental Association, Dec. 22/29, 1989.
This information was compiled for you by the Academy of General Dentistry. Your
dentist cares about long-term dental health for you and your family and demonstrates
that concern by belonging to the Academy of General Dentistry. As one of the 35,000
general dentists in the United States and Canada who are members of the Academy,
your dentist participates in an ongoing program of professional development and
continuing education to remain current with advances in the profession and to
provide quality patient treatment. Visit the AGD's website at www.agd.org. You have permission to photocopy this page and distribute it to your patients.
March 1999 AGD IMPACT
Posted† October† 1,† 2000† [TCJ]