Tooth decay is caused by micro-organisms (bacteria) which convert the food we eat into acid. This acid removes valuable calcium out of the tooth’s hard outer shell, eventually causing a hole or cavity in the tooth. The cavity allows bacteria to inhabit the tooth and continue to burrow deeper towards the nerve. If left untreated, a cavity can cause toothache, resulting in the need for root canal treatment or even removal of the tooth if it is no longer restorable. Bacteria can also attack fillings and other restorations in your mouth, which can lead to more costly treatment down the road.
The bacteria get their first hold on the tooth in the form of plaque. This colorless, sticky film blankets your teeth as soon as you eat, and is analogous to the slime found at the bottom of your pet’s water bowl. Because of its sticky nature it can be difficult to remove, but disruption of this film is imperative to preventing bacteria from beginning the demineralization process. Some of the worst foods for causing plaque are those rich in sugar and carbohydrates, including soda beverages, some juices, candy and many kinds of pasta, breads and cereals.
Plaque can also cause gum and bone disease (“periodontal disease”). Chronic exposure of your gums to plaque can cause them to become irritated, inflamed, and in some cases, to bleed. Eventually, the plaque can harden into a state called “calculus” or tartar. This material binds onto the teeth, is hard, and cannot be brushed off. It acts like barnacles on the side of a ship, hiding new plaque underneath the ledges. The outcome can be a slow destruction of the gum and bone tissue around the teeth, and may result in pain, hypersensitivity and increased bleeding.
The two best defenses against tooth decay and gum disease are a healthy, well-balanced diet and good oral hygiene. This includes eating foods that do not contribute to the decay process, as well as employing techniques, such as daily brushing, flossing and rinsing, which will disrupt the plaque. Fluoridated toothpastes should be used in conjunction with brushing to help replace some of the calcium destroyed by bacteria. Most public drinking water contains fluoride, but if you are unsure about your water supply, then use a good quality mouth rinse containing fluoride.
Chewing sugarless gum is an effective way to protect your oral health between brushings. It helps stimulate your body’s production of saliva, which rinses decay-causing food particles and debris from your mouth and contains a powerful chemical that actually neutralizes plaque formation. If a person’s cavity forming rate is above normal, more substantial intervention may be required, in the form of prescribed anti-cavity rinses or special anti-cavity sealants to help fight decay.