What causes decay?
Tooth decay is caused by the interaction between foods that you eat and bacteria that are in your mouth. The bacteria live in plaque that is formed on your teeth daily. The bacteria survive by digesting foods that you eat (mostly high carbohydrate, sticky, or acidic food/drinks). When the bacteria consume the foods, they produce acid. This acid dissolves or deminiralizes the minerals in the outer layer of the tooth. This is the first stage of decay and can appear either white or brown. If everything is well balanced saliva will neutralize the acid, help wash away bacteria, and remineralize the tooth structure. If you snack too often, or eat too many starchy foods, the saliva can’t keep up with the neutralization/remineralization process. Eventually the acid will make a “hole” in the enamel layer of the tooth (a “cavity”). Once through the enamel, it will grow much more quickly in the softer inner layers of the tooth (called dentin). Any areas in your mouth that are difficult to reach are at increased risk of this process.
Decay is caused by acids from bacteria so it is considered a bacterial infection. Decay can be transferred from one family member to another by activities such as sharing food or kissing.
How can I prevent tooth decay?
- Limit the times during the day when you consume carbohydrate rich foods and drinks.
- Eat snacks that are less detrimental to your teeth include nuts, cheese, eggs, and non-starchy vegetables. Even “sugar free” or “diet” drinks can contain acid which contributes to the cause of decay.
- Make sure to brush after meals using a fluoridated tooth paste. Fluoride helps to strengthen the enamel on your teeth.
- Rinse with a baking soda mouth rinse after eating will help neutralize the acid if brushing is not possible.
- Chewing a gum containing Xylitol can help to prevent the bacteria from producing acids that cause decay. When they digest the Xylitol their metabolic process is stopped, so even though they consume the carbohydrates, they are unable to produce acid.
- Make sure to thoroughly remove plaque at least one time every 24 hours (brush for 2 minutes with an electric tooth brush (4 minutes with manual brush), floss with unwaxed floss for 2 minutes moving thoroughly up and down along each tooth surface, remove plaque from tongue with a tongue cleaner or brush, including any other hygiene aid to help access each surface area of the teeth).
Photo credits of Dr. Barry Hughes at Dental Care Matters