Chances are you’ve been hearing about cavities for years. Probably your mom used them as a motivator to get you to brush your teeth, and for good reason. According to the CDC, 91 percent of adults aged 20-64 have had one filled. That means that most of us at some point in our lives are likely to encounter these little guys. Even though they’re prevalent, you’ve probably imagined them to be fairly simply — related to sugar and soda, which you’re trying to avoid anyway. In actuality, however, cavities are way more interesting than you might think.
What Many Misunderstand
Most patients fundamentally misunderstand what a cavity is and what causes them. At its most basic, a cavity is a hole in the outside layer of our tooth otherwise known as our enamel. If a cavity advances enough, it can break through our tooth’s dentin, into the pulp layer, and put our whole tooth in jeopardy, usually requiring intervention such as a root canal. But what, exactly, forms this hole and how can it “infect” a tooth?
Toothpaste commercials, our parents, and maybe even our childhood dentists have been saying it for years: sugar rots our teeth. The truth, however, is much more complicated. Cavities are more closely related to an infection than anything else, and while sugar plays a role in tooth decay and other oral complications like gum disease, mouth bacteria already present are the real cause.
What Actually Causes Cavities
Ultimately, cavities are the result of “dysbiosis,” a biological term meaning a “microbial imbalance on or inside the body.” Our mouths can carry between 6-8 billion bacteria which help us to predigest food, help our mouths to fight off infection, and help our mouths to heal. In general, all these different strains of bacteria work with little to no conflict. The problem occurs when a certain strain of bacteria becomes dominate due to food access and other factors.
Streptococcus mutans help us to digest sugars and simple carbohydrates, but they’re also very good at reproducing when they have an abundance of food. So when we eat sugar and neglect to brush our teeth, these bacteria, which usually hang out on the surfaces of teeth and gums, rapidly multiply and produce an acidic byproduct that can erode enamel. When holes are formed, they crowd up around them, accelerating the process.
How to Stop Cavities
Cavities don’t form overnight. It takes a specific set of circumstances to create dysbiosis within the mouth, and depending on your oral hygiene routine and other factors such as the thickness of you enamel, it can take 3-6 months for cavities to form. Oral hygiene is a great way to fight cavities, especially if you’re brushing and flossing twice a day, usually after meals. But equally important is attending regularly scheduled dentist check-ups and cleanings.
The American Dental Association suggests visiting the dentist every six months to catch complications early, and to clean plaque residue collected on teeth. If it’s been awhile since your last check-up, make sure to schedule one as soon as possible.