There are three essential ingredients in order for tooth decay to occur. They are sugar, bacteria, and time. Today, we’ll be discussing the second factor – bacteria. Many people don’t realize that tooth decay is a transmissible disease, spread from person to person, similar to strep throat. We’ve actually identified the specific strain of bacteria that is most frequently the cause of tooth decay. The more we know and understand about the causes of tooth decay the better we can prevent and treat this problem.
Where do cavity-causing bacteria come from?
Bacteria that cause tooth decay are spread from person to person in a manner similar to any other bacterial infection. Research has shown that in young children, the cavity-causing bacteria is passed most frequently from mother to child. This makes sense, as mothers play a major role in raising young children, and are most likely to share germs with their children. With this knowledge, we always recommend that parents keep up with their own oral health care. Also, minimizing saliva-sharing activities, such as sharing cups, utensils, etc, can reduce the chances of passing along cavity-causing bacteria to your children.
How do these bacteria affect kids differently than adults?
When children get cavities, they frequently develop in high numbers and progress very rapidly. One could argue that younger children don’t have as many healthy bacteria yet, and when invaded with cavity-causing bacteria they face less competition. I think there is probably some truth to this idea, and there are many general health benefits to foods high in probiotics, or “good bacteria”. Encouraging children to eat foods that are high in probiotics ensures that their guts develop healthy colonies of good bacteria, which makes it more difficult for harmful bacteria to establish themselves.
How do fillings address the bacterial nature of tooth decay?
Traditional tooth fillings addressed the problem of bacteria by washing them away. A filling consists of cleaning the decayed area first and then replacing missing tooth structure with a filling. There are new and exciting alternatives to “drill-and-fill” dentistry that address tooth decay as a bacterial disease. Silver diamine fluoride has been shown as an effective way to kill the bacteria that cause tooth decay. Using silver diamine fluoride addresses the cause of tooth decay and is minimally invasive. While it doesn’t do anything to replace missing tooth structure, it can be an effective alternative for patients who are unable to tolerate traditional dentistry.
Knowing that bacteria cause tooth decay, we are able to make recommendations for prevention (suggesting that adults keep up with their own oral health, minimize activities that pass bacteria from one person to another) and for treatment (silver diamine fluoride to eliminate cavity-causing bacteria). Next time, we will describe the third and final factor necessary for the formation of cavities – time.