Female patient of Tidewater Dental arts experiences tooth sensitivity

Do you keep getting unexpected cavities? This post goes over the various factors that determine your risk of tooth decay from the most obvious to some that may surprise you. We will also discuss what you can do to better protect your teeth.

First I should explain what even causes tooth decay. The word “decay” is misleading because the teeth are not truly decaying but dissolving. Something in the mouth is creating too acidic of an environment and this leads to mineral loss and breakdown of the tooth structure. The most common offenders are certain strains of bacteria that feast upon the sugars and produce acid as a waste product. The white filmy plaque that forms on your teeth is made up of colonies of bacteria including these strains. Other forms of acid attack also contribute to this break down and will be discussed further in this post.

The goal of brushing and flossing is the remove those bacterial plaques from the tooth surface. While most people manage to brush everyday, the average person is not consistently flossing. The most common type of decay I see starts in between teeth where your toothbrush alone is not going to clean. Flossing, when done properly, will also clean below the gum and help prevent gum disease. If you find that flossing causes you discomfort or bleeding, you may be overdue for a check-up and cleaning. Our hygienist Elizabeth can get you back on track and show you how to better manage plaque build-up and swollen gums.

In order to produce acid waste, the bacteria must have a food source – the infamous sugar. The worst cause of tooth decay in the American diet is soda. It not only contains unbelievable amounts of sugar but also acid. Other sugary beverages can be just as bad. These include coffee creamer, sweet tea, lemonade, fruit juice, sports drinks and many more. I urge everyone to check the nutrition label on their most common drinks to see the grams of sugar. Another factor is how long these sugars stay on your teeth. If you are going to drink something sweet, try consuming it with a meal over a shorter amount of time. Drinking through a straw can also help protect your teeth. Try also to rinse out afterwards to help your mouth recover.

Sometimes hidden and unexpected sources of sugar are to blame. Cough drops, for example, can be almost as bad as hard candy and stay on the teeth longer than something you simply chew and swallow. I see decay in young children if they were put to bed with a bottle containing milk instead of water creating a condition known as “baby bottle tooth decay.” Dried fruit, while touted as a healthy snack, also put your teeth at risk for the way it sticks and it’s high sugar content.

So what about sugar substitutes? While some such as Sucralose and Aspartame are far from being healthy, they are still better for your teeth than actual sugar. A newer sugar substitute, Xylitol, actually decreases your risk of tooth decay. You can find Xylitol granules that can be used to sweeten foods and drinks in the place of sugar.  It even tastes much closer to the real thing in my opinion.  We have samples of Xylitol candy in the office if you would like to try it.  Just beware that it is toxic to dogs.

As we discussed before, the cause of tooth decay is some source of acid exposure on the teeth. This can include other sources besides what comes from those pesky bacteria.  The food and drinks you consume have some degree of acidity.  Even something like regularly putting lemon in your water can have a damaging effect. Aside from ingested sources of acid, your own stomach can also misbehave in such as way that affects your teeth. If you have GERD or acid reflux, also known as heartburn, then you most likely have some amount of stomach acid ending up in your saliva.  Any condition that leads to vomiting will also expose the teeth to stomach acid. I encourage any patient with such a condition to manage it as best they can with the help of their physician. You can directly lower the amount of acid in your mouth by swishing with a mouthwash of sorts made with baking soda and water.  I don’t recommend brushing with baking soda because it can be too abrasive for the tooth enamel. 

Your risk of decay also has a lot to do with the strength of your body’s natural defenses.  The first line of defense is the tooth enamel which is the strongest substance in the human body.  Some people naturally develop stronger teeth than others.  However, there are ways to strengthen enamel.  Fluoride application strengthens the teeth by integrating with the tooth structure itself.  Your saliva also plays an important role in fighting tooth decay by helping to rinse food particles off the teeth.  The mineral content in your saliva also acts to neutralize any acid and replace lost minerals from the structure of the enamel.  Staying hydrated will help maintain adequate salivary function.   Also be aware that many medications can cause dry mouth and therefore increase risk of decay.  While you may not be able to stop taking such a medication, lowering your risk of decay will be even more important. 

I hope you have found this post helpful. If you have further questions or concerns about your oral health, feel free to contact us here at Tidewater Dental Arts.  As always, our team looks forward to serving all of your dental health needs.