Did you know the sound of a dentist's drill can invoke a panic attack? OK, that's not true. But during those anxious moments in the waiting room, listening to the cacophony of machinery from beyond the door, it feels true. Unfortunately, going to the dentist is a fact of life. And cavities, those tiny holes or other physical breakdown of our teeth, are usually the culprits behind the most uncomfortable dentist visits.
Most of us are familiar with cavities and become so at an early age. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 19 percent of people between the ages of 2 and 19 have untreated cavities [source: CDC]. Kids are more prone to tooth decay than adults because children generally are not as diligent about brushing (no surprise there), but also because tooth decay is actually a communicable disease called dental caries which is usually passed from parents to kids by sharing utensils or cups [source: Felsenthal].
We all know brushing and flossing regularly will help prevent cavities, but what causes the enamel to break down in the first place? In this article, we'll take a look at five causes of consistent cavities and explore how everything from eating habits to hygiene plays a role in dental health.
We're going to start with dessert and discuss how the sugary treats contribute to tooth decay -- and how to have your cake and have some teeth left to eat it with, too.
How Sugary Foods Cause Cavities
There are a number of lifestyle factors that contribute to cavity development, which we will discuss in coming sections. But all tooth decay begins with a little mouth-dwelling germ called mutans streptococcus. This bacteria feeds on sugar and starches that accumulate in the mouth. And in a truly stunning case of looking a gift horse in the mouth, it in turn creates an acid that depletes calcium and erodes tooth enamel. This little sucker also forms plaque, which coats teeth in more acids and further contributes to decay.
Eating foods that are heavily sugared leave behind lots of remnants for bacteria to feast on. And it happens in a hurry. Within about 20 seconds of consuming a sugary snack, bacteria have already covered it in acid, which hangs around for up to a half-hour. And this doesn't mean the bacteria get to work once you've completed your meal. Instead, acid development happens each time the bacteria and sugar come into contact with each other. This could happen dozens of times over the course of a meal.
This means that how you eat may have more to do with your risk of cavity development than what you eat [source: O'connor]. For example, sucking on a mint all afternoon would actually be more damaging than if you were to eat the entire bag of mints for lunch.
Keep reading to learn why diet soda is not a good alternative when trying to avoid a trip to the dentist.
4 How Acidic Foods Cause Cavities
Acidic foods such as citrus and diet soda are also big contributors to tooth decay. And unlike sugary foods, which we discussed in the previous section, acidic foods do more harm than just create favorable conditions for our friend, mutans streptococcus. Where this bacteria feeds on sugar and creates its own cavity-causing acid, consuming acidic foods can eliminate the middleman so the acids can get to work on their own.
Carbonated drinks, fruit juice and even highly acidic food such as bread and fish, can directly erode tooth enamel and cause cavities. Even stomach acids can contribute to tooth decay [source: Bupa]. But there are some steps beyond simply limiting these foods that you can take to minimize the damage (because let's face it, you're not giving up diet sodas or bread).
One simple way could be to time your snacks better. Eating highly acidic food before bedtime is no bueno because our body actually produces less saliva while we sleep and saliva is one way our bodies neutralize damaging acids. Also, pairing a particularly acidic meal with cheese will help because of the neutralizing properties of the cheese [source: British Dental Health Foundation]. And fight the urge to brush your teeth right after eating because the acid gets to work quickly, softening the enamel and making it vulnerable to brushing. Instead, rinse your mouth with water or mouthwash and wait thirty minutes before brushing [source: Save Your Smile].
Now that we've covered how the food we eat can help cause cavities, we're going to dive into some other habits that can contribute to poor dental health.
How Poor Hygiene Can Cause Consistent Cavities
OK, before you skip ahead because you already know this, consider that the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that a child should begin an oral hygiene regimen before they even have teeth.
Now the result of bad oral hygiene doesn't begin and end with cavities, so there are a few things besides rotting teeth to consider when assessing your own habits. Bad breath along with stained or crooked teeth may be hallmarks of bad hygiene. In fact, gum disease has been linked to more serious health problems including heart disease and stroke. So regular, quality hygiene could save you from a lot more than the drill.
The longer sugar and acids stay on your teeth after meals, the longer the corrosive acids have to work on enamel. And as we mentioned earlier, once enamel is gone it is lost forever.
Fortunately, this part is easier than giving up certain foods. Brushing and flossing, coupled with regular appointments with The One We Do Not Speak Of, is usually enough to keep cavities at bay. Brushing after every meal (remember the 30-minute rule), or at least twice daily, is a good place to start. This clears the mouth of food and bacteria so the acids don't get a chance to build up. Flossing should happen once a day and this will clean the places your toothbrush can't reach. Flossing is also beneficial for healthy gums, which help your teeth remain in place.
So far we've looked at different behavioral factors that can cause recurring cavity formation, but what role does genetics play? Keep reading and find out how we can thank mom and dad for our cavities.
The Role of Genetics in Consistent Cavities
Today we know that genetics have an important influence in virtually every physiological development we experience. But when it comes to the health of our teeth, we tend to think it's all the result of how good we take care of them. But just as your genes determine hair color and height, they are also responsible for your teeth. From the straightness of your smile to the alignment of your molars, genetics is to thank (or blame). Your genes determine even the hardness of your enamel. This is why people with impeccable brushing habits can find themselves chronically battling cavities while others can keep healthy teeth on a steady diet of bubble gum and candied apples.
Periodontal disease, also called gum disease, have also been linked to genetics [source: Hassell]. You've heard of gingivitis, the minor swelling of the gums that advertisers throw around in while selling virtually every dental hygiene product on the market. Gingivitis is on one end of the spectrum, but more serious cases of periodontal disease can cause serious damage to the tissue and bone of the mouth and can result in severe infection and tooth loss.
Of course, genes aren't the only factor in gum disease. According to the CDC, half of all cases in the U.S. occur in smokers. Exposure to nicotine and lack of oxygen can trigger inflammation in the gums and cause cell and tissue damage [source: University of Maryland Medical Center].
So, are there certain groups of people who are more prone to cavities? Find out in the next section.
How Age Can Impact Cavity Development
A recent study by the University of Illinois found that the saliva of babies contains high amounts of bacteria that cause early childhood caries (ECC) [source: Swanson]. If you remember in the first section, caries is actually an infectious disease that causes tooth decay. It was originally thought that dental care should be introduced around 19 months of age, but this research confirms that dental care should begin long before a child even has teeth.
Older people also run the risk of developing cavities for a number of reasons. There was a time when extracting a tooth was the preferred means to get rid of a cavity. But today there are better options including root canals and crowns that let people keep their original teeth much longer. But because most people will experience some degree of gum diseases, the soft tissue of the mouth can recess over time and expose more of the teeth to bacteria. Another risk factor more prevalent among seniors is the lack of saliva, which contains fluids that neutralize acids and helps clear away food remnants. But many medications on the market for high blood pressure, inflammation and heart disease actually reduce saliva flow, taking away one of our best weapons against cavities [source: AGS].
Brushing and flossing regularly are still the best one-two punch we have, but we can supplement this by being mindful of what we put in our mouths.
So put down the soda. And please -- do not use your teeth to open that bag of chips.
HowStuffWorks looks at the big diseases that may occur if you have rotting teeth.
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