It’s Contagious! How to Control Tooth Decay and Keep It From Spreading – Have you ever watched a nasty cold or flu spread like wildfire? You’ve witnessed the force of contagion. Yet, even that flu is not as contagious as the world’s number-one infectious disease – tooth decay! That’s right, tooth decay, followed closely by gum disease, are the most prevalent infectious diseases in the world today.
Most likely you know – and surely you’ve heard your dental-care staff say it – that tooth decay is caused by bacteria. When the decay-causing bacteria are present in the mouth, they stick to the tooth surface in a layer called plaque. These bacteria feed upon sugars in the food we eat. As a by-product of their life processes, the bacteria then release acids onto the tooth surface. These acids eat into and dissolve the tooth enamel, and that is what forms the cavity.
The acids produced by the bacteria then, are waste products. So if your household has any youngsters who balk at doing a thorough brushing, just tell them that not brushing means they’ll have to go around with “bacteria poo” in their mouths!
How Does Bacteria Get into the Mouth?
As adults, we tend to accept the fact that our mouths harbor bacteria. If we’ve developed good habits of oral hygiene and self-care over our lifetimes, we’re most likely keeping the bacteria levels at bay. But did you wonder where these bacteria come from? How do they get there in the first place?
Babies are born with nearly sterile, or at least low-bacteria, mouths. This means bacteria have to be introduced into a child’s mouth from his or her environment. Often it comes inadvertently, from the parents or other caregivers. Sharing eating utensils or drinking cups, for example, is a great way to spread decay-causing bacteria. By the same token, not washing these implements thoroughly allows bacteria to spread and multiply. Kissing a child on the mouth may also introduce the decay-causing bacteria.
Once a child’s mouth is harboring bacteria, the next step toward tooth decay is feeding the little microbes. And just as we love sugar, so do the bacteria! While some sugar is present in nearly everything we eat, foods with high sugar content, such as biscuits, sweets, and soft drinks, really send the bacteria into a feeding (and acid-producing) frenzy. Sugary foods that are eaten frequently or that stay in the mouth a long time, such as hard sweets, just give the bacteria that much more time to feed, build up their colonies, and produce tooth-dissolving acids.
What to do with a Hole in Your Tooth?
Cavities are no fun. A hole in your tooth might not be noticed at first, but as long as it’s there, it becomes a site for more and more decay. Bacteria love living in a nice, cozy (to them) dental cavity, where they can continue to grow and produce more acids. Untreated, the cavity gets bigger and deeper, eventually causing pain and infection. Severe cases of tooth decay can lead to loss of the tooth, difficulty chewing, and impaired speech. Advanced tooth decay can even lead to psychological problems such as low self-esteem, poor social interaction, and difficulty concentrating. For example, you don’t want to have your mind on your teeth when going for an important job interview – or a big date!
Treating a dental cavity involves drilling and filling. Drilling is needed to remove the decayed and infected material, cleaning down into the strong, infection-free tooth substance. After being sterilized, this cleaned-out cavity is then filled with a suitable material that seals off the inner part of the tooth and builds the ‘hole’ back up to surface level. The surface is then shaped and polished to blend with the natural tooth. As with so many things in life, this procedure is easier to carry out and has a better chance of success with a smaller hole than a big one. That’s why it is so important to have thorough exams regularly – so we can find the little cavities and stop them from becoming big ones!
An even better approach to treatment of tooth decay is to prevent it in the first place – stopping the cavities before they start.
What Can We Do to Prevent Tooth Decay – Especially for the Kids?
Tooth decay is hard on children. Even though it’s preventable in many cases, tooth decay is still five more times common than asthma in young children. It is also the second most common cause of absenteeism from school. Don’t let your kids miss out on their education – take these steps to help your child’s smile in top form:
- Baby’s teeth have yet to erupt? Make a habit of gently cleaning her gums with a damp cloth after each feeding.
- Does your child like to fall asleep with a bottle or sippy cup at bedtime? Fill it with water only – avoid fruit juice or other sugary drinks.
- First tooth in? That’s a time for celebration – and baby’s first visit to the dentist! Then follow through with regular checkups as recommended by your dentist.
- Once the first tooth appears, you can begin brushing baby’s teeth daily with a low fluoride toothpaste. Do this in the morning and at bedtime.
- When Junior’s teeth have developed so they touch each other, begin with flossing at least once a day.
- Change toothbrushes regularly. One to three months is a good interval. If your child is sick with cold, flu, or other infectious illness, replace the toothbrush as soon as the sniffles go away!
- Don’t spread the germs that cause tooth decay. Avoid sharing spoons, cups, food, or pacifiers. And of course, never share a toothbrush!
Because preventing tooth decay is a lifelong proposition, these pointers apply equally well to adults well, maybe except for falling asleep with a sippy cup. Daily flossing and brushing with a fluoride toothpaste, avoiding or cutting down on sugary food and drink, and regular check-ups all work together to keep your teeth strong, beautiful and free of cavities. If that’s not enough incentive, consider this: cutting out the sugar is good for your waistline, too!