"Open wide -- a little wider. That's it. This won't hurt a bit." The scene is all too familiar. The ominous chair, the "sadist" behind the mask, the prick of the needle -- that awful, awful needle. Then the numbness and mechanical whine of the drill … the ear-screeching I'd-rather-stick-a-screwdriver-in-my-eye whine. Mother was right; floss and brush every night before bed.
Would've, should've, could've. Learning life's lessons can be painful, especially when it comes to filling cavities. Unlike a shattered finger, a ripped leg bone or even a busted rib, a tooth cannot repair itself. As a result, cavities -- those permanently damaged areas on the hard surface of human teeth -- are the bane of our oral existence.
Cavities go by many names, including tooth decay and caries, but they're caused by one thing: tiny bacteria. The bacteria chew away at the enamel, the hard, outer shell of the tooth. Bacteria forms over time when we don't clean our teeth well and often. If left untreated, bacteria creates cavities that can dig deeper and deeper into a tooth. When that happens, toothaches, infections and tooth loss can occur [source: Mayo Clinic].
There are several ways for dentists to treat these maladies of the maw. They can drill the decayed enamel out of the tooth and replace the damaged area with fillings made from various substances, including porcelain and mixtures of silver and other materials. If the decay is so bad that it reaches the pulp, or inner area of the tooth, a root canal may be necessary. Pulling a tooth is another option when all else fails [source: Mayo Clinic].
But what if filling cavities was painless? What if science could silence the incessant hum of the dentist's drill forever? Researchers in Great Britain say they might have invented such a technique. Scientists at Leeds University Dental Institute say they have developed a protein solution that, when applied to a decaying tooth, helps the enamel regenerate within weeks, obviating the need for more radical solutions [source: Times of India]. Scientists are testing the procedure as we speak. In the meantime, go to the next page to find five products that prevent tooth decay.
It's 2011 and fluoride is still a hotly debated topic, much like it was back in the day when Dwight Eisenhower was president. At that time, many thought that putting fluoride in American water systems to fight cavities was a plot by the communists to take over the country.
Communism is all but gone, yet in some communities the battle over fluoride is still being fought. Fluoride occurs naturally when fluorine, a pale yellow, nonmetallic element, dissolves in water and binds with other elements [source: Webster's New World Dictionary of Science]. Fluoride is a main ingredient in many toothpaste and mouth wash products.
In many communities, politicians and residents have recently been questioning whether they should continue to add fluoride to water systems since residents can get it in products they buy in the store. Most officials say it's not worth the cost to the community [source: Howard].
Regardless, fluoride has proven to be a sort of wonder drug for teeth. Here's how it works: Inside your mouth, bacteria fueled by sugar feast on enamel. As a result, the enamel loses the minerals that make it strong. Fluoride makes the enamel more resilient by disrupting the acids spewed by the bacteria in plaque. Not only can fluoride be found in water and some foods, but people can apply the compound directly by using fluoridated toothpaste and other products. The dentist can also shower the teeth with a fluoride gel or foam [source: WebMD].
Fluoride is in 59 percent of American drinking water. It is also in food and beverages, which are made with fluoridated water [source: Gilson]. Still, there is such a thing as too much fluoride. If used as directed, fluoride is safe and a proven cavity fighter. High doses of fluoride, however, can eat away at a tooth's enamel in a process called fluorosis [source: WebMD].
Do as your dentist says and floss. You won't be sorry. Not only does flossing remove last night's chicken wings and celery shreds, it is also the best way to remove plaque from between teeth. It's even better than your toothbrush and can get into places your toothbrush can't -- especially behind the back teeth. Yet, the majority of Americans don't floss [source: Freeman].
Flossing is great at removing plaque, a sticky gel-like substance -- think of it as a witch's brew of saliva, food particles, acids, bacteria and sugar -- from your teeth. That bacteria feed on sugar, which produces the acid. Dental plaque attacks the enamel, creating cavities [source: Mayo Clinic].
What size should I get? Should it be manual or powered? Should the bristles be hard, soft or medium? About 70 years ago, choosing a toothbrush was easy. There was only one kind, a toothbrush with nylon bristles. Today, consumers have many different styles to choose from. But what's the best? How can we keep the cavity creeps away?
According to the American Dental Association, both manual and powered toothbrushes are good at cleaning the gunk off your teeth. In fact, various studies comparing the two indicate no difference between how they clean. However, a powered rotation oscillation toothbrush with bristles that move in circles and up and down is shown to be more effective than a manual brush [source: WebMD].
As for the size of the toothbrush head, buy what's most comfortable for you to use. Some people might have difficulty maneuvering a large-headed brush. The same holds true for bristle type. Just look for the ADA symbol on the toothbrush package and brush away [source: American Dental Association].
Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol that people can use just like regular sugar. It even comes in granules. However, there is one major difference: Unlike most sugars, xylitol stops the growth of bacteria that can cause cavities. Mouth bacteria don't seem to like xylitol all that much. With less sugar to feast on, the bacteria in the mouth, and especially on teeth, diminish, creating less plaque and acid [source: California Dental Association].
Many products, including gum and mints, contain xylitol. Dental experts recommend using these products up to five times a day [source: California Dental Association]. So if you don't have access to your toothbrush, chew a piece of gum with xylitol for a few minutes after lunch instead; it can help prevent cavities just the same.
Putting a sealant on the top, or biting surfaces of your back teeth, is a good way to keep cavities under control in both children and adults. Sealants are acrylic coatings that the dentist applies on the top of the tooth. The sealants seep into all the nooks and crannies, creating a barrier that protects the tooth from enamel-eating plaque. Sealants are recommended for children who've just gotten their permanent molars and for adults who show no signs of decay. The process is simple. The dentist applies the sealant after cleaning the tooth. Within a minute a protective shield forms [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
At a cost of $25 to $45 a tooth, sealants are cost effective. They last up to 10 years. Just remember, the dentist applies the sealants only to the top of the tooth, leaving the rest of the tooth exposed to bacteria. In addition, some sealants also release bisphenol A (BPA), which is an industrial chemical used in the production of some plastics and could alter the effects of your body's hormones, causing a wealth of problems -- including behavioral problems in children. So it's key is to do your research when sealant shopping [source: Smarta Health].
A new way to brush your teeth? HowStuffWorks looks at toothpaste tablets.
More Great Links
- American Dental Association. "Toothbrushes." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.ada.org/1321.aspx
- California Dental Association. "Xylitol: The Decay-Preventative Sweetener." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.cda.org/popup/xylitol
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Dental Sealants." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/publications/factsheets/sealants_faq.htm
- Freeman, David. "The Truth About Healthy Teeth: Your Guide to at-Home Dental Care." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/healthy-teeth-10/flossing-floss-sticks
- Gilson, David. "Conspiracy Watch: Fluoride as Pinko Plot." Mother Jones. May/June 2008. (Aug. 30, 2011). http://motherjones.com/politics/2008/05/conspiracy-watch-fluoride-pinko-plot
- Howard, Melanie. "Paris TN: Some communities in Tennessee rejecting fluoride in drinking water." The Paris Post-Intelligencer. Aug. 25, 2011. (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.parispi.net/articles/2011/08/25/news/local_news/doc4e5678faaff06574213423.txt
- Mayo Clinic. "Cavities/tooth decay." April, 28, 2011. (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cavities/DS00896
- SmartaHealth.com. "BPA Free Dental Sealants." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.smartahealth.com/sealants.html
- Times of India. "Tooth fillings to become painless." Aug. 24, 2011. (Aug. 30, 2011). http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-08-24/science/29921968_1_enamel-fillings-protein
- Toothbrush Express. "Toothbrush History." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.toothbrushexpress.com/html/toothbrush_history.html
- WebMD. "Choosing a Toothbrush: The Pros and Cons of Electric and Disposable." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/choosing-a-toothbrush-the-pros-and-cons-of-electric-and-disposable
- WebMD. "Dental Health and Fluoride Treatment." (Aug. 30, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/fluoride-treatment
- Webster's New World Dictionary of Science. "Fluoride." Macmillan General Reference, 1998. (Aug. 30, 2011).