Ever wonder just exactly what causes cavities? Once upon a time, “Toothworms” — miniscule, yet relentless pests — were thought to be responsible for this widespread malady. This belief persisted from ancient times through the 17th Century; William Shakespeare even made reference to the baneful beasts in his play Much Ado about Nothing. (“What, sigh for a toothache? [It] is but a humor or a worm.”) Today, however, we know why no one ever observed an honest-to-goodness toothworm: it’s because they’re much too tiny to see with the naked eye.
Actually, it isn’t worms, but much smaller organisms that cause tooth decay. These harmful plaque bacteria (along with many helpful microorganisms) live in the mouth, and build up on surfaces of the teeth when they aren’t cleaned properly. They feed on sugar in the diet, and release substances that erode tooth enamel, which causes small holes called cavities. Cavities, in turn, are what’s responsible for most toothaches.
While we may scoff at old legends, one fact remains: Even today, according to the National Institutes of Health, tooth decay is the number one chronic disease of both children and adults; and it’s almost entirely preventable. We can’t blame it on toothworms — but what can we do about it?
Glad you asked! The best way to avoid decay is through prevention. That means brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and flossing them every day. It also means eating a balanced diet and avoiding acidic and sugary foods — like soda, some juices, and sweet, sticky snacks. If you do consume these types of foods, limit them to mealtimes; that gives your saliva enough time in between to neutralize the acids naturally. And, of course, make an appointment see us twice a year for a complete check-up and professional cleaning.
If you do begin to notice the symptoms of tooth decay (toothache, for example) it’s important to come in to the dental office right away, so we can treat the problem before it gets worse. Prompt action can often help save a tooth that might otherwise be lost. Besides filling the cavity, we may be also able to recommend ways to help prevent the disease from affecting other teeth. And if you need a more extensive procedure to relieve the problem — such as a root canal — we can make sure you get the appropriate treatment.
We’ve come a long way since the “toothworm” days — but we can still do a lot more to make tooth decay a thing of the past.
If you would like more information about tooth decay and cavity prevention, please contact us or schedule an appointment. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Decay — The World’s Oldest & Most Widespread Disease” and “Tooth Decay — How To Assess Your Risk.”
You've been brushing your teeth since you were big enough to look over the bathroom sink: now you brush and floss every day. You do it because you know it's important — but do you know why?
It's because your teeth and gums have enemies: oral bacteria in particular, the major cause for tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease. The vehicle for these infections is a thin-film of food particles on tooth surfaces called plaque.
Daily brushing removes plaque from broad tooth surfaces, while flossing removes it from between teeth. If you don't brush or floss every day — or you aren't effective enough — then plaque becomes a haven for bacteria which then produce high levels of acid that soften and erode enamel. Bacterial plaque can also trigger gum disease: gingivitis (inflamed gum tissues) can begin in just a few days of not brushing and flossing.
You could avoid these diseases and their high treatment costs with an effective, daily hygiene regimen. There are things you can start doing right now to improve your efforts: be sure to hold your toothbrush (soft, multi-tufted is best for most people) at a 45-degree angle to the gum line and gently scrub or wiggle the bristles across the teeth; cover all tooth surfaces on both sides of the teeth — about two minutes of brushing. Be sure to use a fluoride toothpaste to boost enamel strength and don't apply too much pressure when you brush to avoid damaging your gums.
With flossing it's best to hold a small amount of string between fingers from each hand and work it gently between the gaps of each tooth. You then wrap the floss around each tooth in the form of a “C” and gently move up and down three or four times.
You can check to see if you're performing these tasks adequately by running your tongue across your teeth — they should feel smooth and a little squeaky. The real test, though, is during your next checkup. Hopefully we'll find the hygiene habits you've been practicing your whole life are helping you keep your teeth healthy and disease-free.