What Causes Cavities?

Despite advances in the general public’s understanding of dental health and the preventive treatments available today, cavities remain the most common dental problem affecting millions of people every year.  Understanding the underlying causes and predisposing factors of cavities can help you prevent them, saving you both time and money.

What is a Cavity?

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A cavity is the non-scientific term most commonly used to describe tooth decay, also known as dental caries.  We call it a “cavity” because as decay makes its way into a tooth, eventually a small hole forms.  The term has become so prevalent that we use it to describe even early decay where no hold exists yet.

Tooth decay is a bacterial infection of the hard structures of a tooth.  Bacteria collect and proliferate, destroying enamel and its underlying dentin as they move into the tooth.

How do Bacteria Cause Cavities?

Bacteria come in millions of different strains, some of which are perfectly healthy.  Others, however, are dangerous and disease-causing.  Scientists have isolated a specific species of bacteria responsible for tooth decay: Streptococcus mutans.

These bacteria ingest (eat) carbohydrates and produce an acidic by-product.  This acid is what causes the damage to enamel, allowing bacteria to penetrate.  Just as acid can etch glass, it softens and weakens tooth enamel.  Once it penetrates enamel, it can quickly move into the softer underlying dentin and leave ruined, infected tooth structure in its wake.  Decayed enamel and dentin is soft and rough, becoming very attractive to more bacteria-containing dental plaque.

If left untreated, decay works toward the center of a tooth, where the nerve and blood vessels reside.  The nerve responds to the toxins produced by bacteria with inflammation, a.k.a. a  toothache.

What Affects the Risk for Cavities?

Bacteria are the primary cause of cavities, and almost everyone has bacteria living in their mouths.  You can control these bacteria in several ways, reducing your cavity risk.

The Amount of Bacteria

First of all, you can control the amount of disease-causing bacteria in your mouth.  The bad bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease live in dental plaque.  You are in control of how much plaque is in your mouth.

Plaque is the sticky, white buildup that accumulates on the teeth between cleanings.  It is easy to remove with typical oral hygiene techniques.  By committing to consistent oral hygiene routines that include brushing, flossing and swishing mouthwash, you can greatly reduce the amount of plaque, and therefore the amount of bacteria, in your mouth.

When plaque remains on the teeth, it begins to harden into tartar (also called calculus).  Tartar is not easy to remove and requires professional attention.  Your dentist or dental hygienist removes tartar with specialized teeth cleaning instruments during a professional teeth cleaning.

The Food Source of Bacteria

You can also control your risk for cavities by limiting the food source of bacteria.  By cutting back on refined sugars and other simple carbs, you can essentially “starve” these bacteria.  Without a food source, they are unable to produce as much acid.

Most people know that sweets can cause cavities, but any simple carb has the same risk, so it’s important to avoid snacks like chips and crackers between meals.

The Environment of Bacteria

There are steps you can take to make your mouth an unfriendly environment for cavity-causing bacteria.  Bacteria proliferate the best in a dry, acidic environment.  This is because saliva works against the bacteria, making it more difficult for plaque to stick to the teeth and counteracting the acid produced by bacteria.  You can create the healthiest oral environment by keeping your mouth moisturized or hydrated and at a neutral or higher pH.

If you suffer from dry mouth, you should add oral care products that work to replace missing saliva.  Eliminate acidic beverages between meals and treat any severe acid reflux issues that could lower the pH in your mouth.

How Can I Prevent Cavities?

By following the steps outlined in the previous section, you can greatly reduce your risk for cavities.  You can prevent them by seeing your dentist regularly and following through with preventive dental recommendations.  These may include:

  • Professional Fluoride Treatments

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral which strengthens and hardens tooth enamel.  When applied to the teeth, it makes them more resistant to the attacks of bacteria, fighting off cavities.  Fluoride is present in most toothpastes and some mouthwashes over-the-counter.  It is available in higher concentrations through professional treatments in the dental office.

  • Dental Sealants

Sealants are protective coatings placed over the biting surfaces of teeth to fill in the grooves and prevent the accumulation of plaque.  It also leaves a shallower, smoother surface that is easier to clean.

  • Prescription Oral Care Products

In some cases, your dentist will recommend a specific toothpaste, gel or mouthwash that can strengthen the enamel and resist cavities.  As with any prescription product, make sure to only use it as directed.

More Questions about Cavities?

Call 940-382-1750 to schedule a consultation with Dr. Chowning.  He can assess your specific risk factors for cavities and help you take steps to prevent them.

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