“Don’t eat too many sweets! You’ll ruin your teeth!” How many of us remember receiving a similar admonition when we were younger? The common folk wisdom suggests that if you avoid eating sweets such as pie, cake, cookies or ice cream, you will have strong, healthy teeth.
But this isn’t necessarily the case. Some people who eat enough sweets to wipe out an entire candy store have perfect pearly whites, while others who eschew anything sweet nevertheless end up with a mouth full of fillings, or worse, end up having to have their teeth pulled and have to wear dentures while they are still young. What’s the reason for the difference? Why do some seemingly healthy people suffer dental woe after dental woe, while others who look like a dentist’s nightmare have none?
The True Causes of Tooth Decay and Cavities
While it may seem clichéd to say that excess sugar causes cavities, like many clichés, this one starts with a kernel of truth. The bacteria in your mouth that are ultimately responsible for causing cavities feed upon sugars. The simpler the sugar, such as the sucrose found in many popular sweet treats, provide a rich diet for cavity-causing bacteria.
However, comparatively speaking, sugar, while not beneficial to your teeth, is not as bad for them as commonly believed. As one Swedish study found, among participants who consumed five to six caramels four to five days a week for a year, 20 percent developed no cavities at all. Even among those who already had cavity lesions, 20 to 30 percent developed no cavities.
Far more important than what food you consume is the type of bacteria that live in your mouth. Cavities form because of biofilms of bacteria left on teeth that create acids which destroy tooth enamel. When this acid causes your mouth to have a pH balance of 5.5 or less, the minerals in your teeth begin to erode. If a pH balance greater than 5.5 fails to be restored over time, cavities occur. Once the cavity has formed, only a filling can correct it.
To further complicate matters, multiple types of biofilm bacteria exist. Some of them viciously attack tooth enamel, while others are relatively benign. Sadly, it’s impossible to tell which type of bacteria your mouth contains until cavities strike.
Genetics play a huge role as well. Cavities form when the bacterial biofilms in your mouth get into tiny cracks and crevices that even toothbrushes cannot reach. Here, they multiply, grow and continue to demineralize your tooth, making the crevice bigger and bigger until a cavity occurs.
Sadly, there’s no way to predict who will be cursed with small cracks and crevices in their teeth, and who will not. This varies from individual to individual, though cavity-prone teeth do tend to run in families.
Another factor impacting how may cavities you will have is the quantity of your saliva production. Saliva washes bacteria away from teeth into the digestive tract where it can do no harm. This is also partially due to genetics: Just as some eyes make more tears, some mouths create more saliva. However, this is also a factor we can control. Avoid drinking alcohol and coffee to excess, both of which dehydrate the body and can cause dry mouth, leading to cavities. Now, you have one more reason to drink more water.
Sadly, a final cause of tooth decay stems from eating disorders. Individuals suffering from anorexia are often dehydrated in addition to hungry. Plus, malnutrition prevents teeth from getting the calcium and magnesium they need to grow. Bulimia causes the same issue with malnutrition, and is further complicated by the fact that many bulimics force themselves to vomit. Vomiting bathes the teeth in harmful bacteria, leading to decay.
How Do You Know If You Have a Cavity?
Obviously, visiting your dentist regularly is critical in both preventing and treating cavities. But what if one should strike between dentist visits? There are definitely some signs to watch out for. If you notice any of these, please see your dentist as soon as possible.
Pain while chewing is the most obvious symptom of a cavity, especially if you experience pain when eating soft foods such as pasta or rice. If you experience pain consuming even applesauce, see your dentist immediately.
Another symptom is extreme sensitivity to heat and cold. We’re all familiar with the “brain freeze” that comes with eating ice cream too quickly. But if your teeth ache every time you take a sip of your morning coffee or suck on an ice cube, it’s time to see the dentist.
Bad breath can also be a sign of cavities, although it can be a sign of many other illnesses as well. However, if you notice pus around your gums, don’t even wait for the dentist. Head straight for the ER. Pus can be a sign that the bacteria have spread to your gums, and from there, even the smallest cut can enter your bloodstream, causing septic shock and even death. Should this happen, you may even need to be hospitalized and receive IV antibiotics.
Now that you have a firm understanding of how great a role genetics plays in whether or not you will end up with a cavity, the temptation to throw your hands up in the air may cross your mind. Please, don’t despair! You can still take many steps to fight cavities before they even start.
Start fighting cavities by adopting good oral hygiene techniques. Be sure to brush your teeth at least twice daily, as well as after a meal if you’ve consumed foods high in sucrose — such as many desserts, but also pasta, bread and blended coffee drinks. However, be careful not to scrub too hard! No matter how hard you scour your teeth, you will still miss the bacteria in the deep crevices where cavities form. Worse, you’ll damage the enamel of your teeth, making them more cavity-prone.
Secondly, drink tooth-healthy beverages. Beverages such as soda are high in sugar and are a veritable banquet for the bacterial biofilms that cause cavities. Those such as flavored coffee are likewise high in sugar. Instead, opt for beverages such as green or black tea, which not only are lower in acid content than juices or soda, but also contain valuable antioxidants that help every cell in your body.
Finally, as much as you may dislike it, see your dentist regularly. Biannual dental checkups can do more than fix cavities after they have already started. They can prevent new ones from forming. If your dentist notices you have a lot of cracks and crevices in your teeth, they may recommend sealants, which are clear, completely undetectable, require no drilling and keep bad bacteria away from where cavities can form.
Much of the reason some people get more cavities than others is simply a matter of a bad turn at the genetic wheel of fortune. But whether or not you were blessed by the genetic gods, there remain steps everyone can take to prevent cavities and have a healthy, beautiful smile for life.