Tooth decay is a process that involves a balance of the mineral loss and replacement in a tooth over time in response to daily acid attacks resulting from food consumption. Cavities and the decay process can be prevented by working closely with your dental professional and following his or her plan for you. Eating the proper foods at the right time during meals and avoiding foods or snacks between meals can also help reduce your risk. And brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day is a critical step toward balancing the "tug-of-war" on your tooth surfaces and preventing the tooth decay process from continuing to become cavities. Let's examine this process.
What is Tooth Decay?
The formation of dental caries, or "cavities", involves three major factors:
- Food or beverages consumed (your diet)
- Bacteria in plaque
- Your current state of oral health
Bacteria interacts with the food you eat to produce waste products in the form of acids, which cause a breakdown or demineralization of areas underneath the tooth surface. This breakdown of the tooth surface is tooth decay.
Think of it this way: Each time you eat, there's an acid attack on the tooth. A counterattack by your body occurs by rinsing the food and acid away with saliva. The saliva not only buffers or neutralizes the acids, it also contains minerals (calcium and phosphate) that rebuild the areas of the tooth that were demineralized or attacked by the acids. This rebuilding process is known as remineralization. This series of attacking and rebuilding is like a tug-of-war in your mouth. It's your body's way of helping protect your teeth from everyday problems. But by fully understanding the cause of dental cavities, and by looking at each of the three factors more closely, we can look at other ways of preventing tooth decay.
Food and Beverages
Foods and beverages that are consumed for prolonged periods of time between meals can tip the balance of remineralization/demineralization in favor of the decay process. Sticky foods, such as caramels and raisins, should be avoided as between-meal snacks, because the acid attack becomes too much for the saliva to prevent and repair. Eating these same foods during a meal, however, allows for the tug-of-war to be a winning situation for a person and their teeth.
If children are allowed to fall asleep with a baby bottle, or if they're given the bottle to carry around with them, and the liquid, whether it be milk, fruit juices or other drinks, can be used by the bacteria to produce acids, and tooth decay can rapidly occur. This is often known as "baby bottle tooth decay".
To help prevent tooth decay, limit your intake of sugary, sticky foods and sweetened beverages between meals.
Bacteria in Plaque
The plaque bacteria on your teeth should be removed by brushing at least twice a day and flossing once a day. Usually, a clean tooth can stay healthy. Certain bacteria are more likely to cause decay because they can use the sugars and starches you eat better than others. Bacteria called streptococci mutans and lactobacillus are two types of these culprits. We all have small amounts of these types of bacteria in our mouths, but sometimes they may be present in higher levels. In those situations, you would be at higher risk for tooth decay or more likely to lose the tug-of-war. Your dental team may use a sample of your saliva to measure levels of these bacteria.
Your Current State of Oral Health
The third primary part of the tooth decay situation is your teeth and mouth. This includes everything from the way the teeth are shaped, formed and positioned, to your saliva, dental treatment and oral health habits. Your saliva is very important in many ways, including slowing the loss of mineral from the teeth and replacing it in the remineralization process. But sometimes, certain conditions or medication change the amount and type of saliva in your mouth, allowing the tooth decay process to progress all the way to cavities.
Ways to Help Prevent Tooth Decay
Sealants: The deep grooves and pits in some teeth, such as molars, can also be trouble spots for decay. One way to prevent this type of decay is to have your dental team paint a shaded plastic material called a pit and fissure sealant on these areas. Once the sealant hardens, it acts as a barrier protecting the tooth surface from plaque and acids.
Fluoride Supplements: Fluorides also play a significant role in preventing decay. By adding fluoride to your water or including a fluoride rinse in your daily oral routine, you can help better protect your teeth from cavities and bacteria. Fluoride supplements are also available and can help keep your mouth clean and healthy.
Fluoride Toothpaste: One of the best ways to prevent mineral loss from the tooth or demineralization and help the replacement process or remineralization is by using toothpaste that contains fluoride. A small amount used daily helps balance the tug-of-war situation in your favor. Many scientific studies over a long period of time have proven this to be one of the most effective ways to prevent tooth decay. Brand new advances in toothpaste technology have made this even better by including antibacterial components, such as the tin in stannous fluoride.