What is a cavity and how to take care of it (Myths about cavities, sugar, hereditary, types of toothpaste)

by: Sandy Johnson, RDH

A cavity is damage to a tooth either as a hole or decay growth caused by the break down of enamel. When you eat, the food residue (especially starchy or sugary foods) combines with saliva and bacteria in the mouth; becoming plaque that then sticks to teeth and begins the breakdown process. Routine dental care will help prevent plaque build up, but sometimes the acids in the foods are too strong and cavities form.

However, there are many common myths and misunderstandings about how people get cavities that should be clarified.
1.    Sugar is the main cause for cavity development.
Sugar is one kind of carbohydrate that bacteria found in the mouth feeds on and turns into acid. This acid is then what causes tooth decay, so in actuality, any carbohydrates can pose a threat to dental health, not just sugary foods.
2.    Cavity risk increases with high carbohydrate consumption
Carbohydrates do activate the oral bacterium that eats away at teeth, however it is the length of exposure not the quantity that increases cavity risk. (For example, eating a piece of cake is not as bad for your teeth as drinking a sugary soda all afternoon).
3.    Toothpaste prevents cavities.
No one toothpaste will protect against the development of cavities, however those containing fluorides can help keep teeth healthy and clean, thus decreasing the likelihood of tooth decay. Regular brushing and flossing will only help to maintain good oral health, but cannot guarantee cavity prevention.
4.    Cavities are genetic.
Cavities are not hereditary in the sense that if a parent has a lot of cavities, so will the child, but rather predispositions may be passed onto offspring. Poorly aligned teeth and predisposition to gum disease for example are often hereditary conditions that additionally make teeth more susceptible to cavity growth because of brushing and flossing challenges, allowing bacteria to remain trapped and damaging to teeth.

Dentists can detect cavities during regular exams and cleanings, however toothaches and sudden tenderness and discomfort in a tooth may be the sign of decay. When a cavity is identified, the common solution is to get a filling, which involves removing the decay and filling the hole to stop further decay. If the tooth is too damaged for a filling to be enough, the decayed portion of the tooth will be removed and a crown will be fitted to cap the remaining tooth.

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