Dental Health Articles
How Prone Are You To Developing Dental Cavities? (Part I)
By Nick K. Nguyen, DDS, APC
Having dental cavities is the number one reason in the United States why people visit the dentist. A lot of people think that developing cavities is a natural part of life and is mostly due to genetics and/or luck. After all, we all know those lucky individuals who do not brush or floss regularly and still never get them. The reasoning behind a person's susceptibility for cavities goes much deeper than luck. There is now a lot of information known about the cavity process, giving us more control than we had originally thought.
A cavity is soft, demineralized, infected tooth containing acid producing bacteria. These bacteria can be passed on from individual to individual. In fact, children frequently receive these bacteria from their parents which can be transmitted by simply sharing a utensil. The bacteria ferment the sugars we eat, creating an acid environment in our mouths which dissolve minerals (calcium and phosphate) from our teeth. If this process is not reversed and enough calcium and phosphate are lost from the tooth, it may become a cavity.
When there is a cavity, the dentist will drill a hole in the tooth to remove the decay before patching it up with a white or silver filling. A big filling from a mechanical viewpoint can be bad because it could result in a weaker tooth that is more prone to future fracture and possibly more major dental work. Many adults are now faced with crowns, bridges, implants, and dentures as a result of large fillings placed in their teeth as children. A healthy tooth has the best long term chances if nothing is ever done to it. However, if a cavity is beyond the stage/size that can be reversed, it must be drilled-and-filled.
The good news is that we can actually heal, reverse, and prevent certain types of cavities. Understanding how a cavity develops and knowing all of the risk factors involved is extremely important in order to intervene and halt the process. For example, if the acid pH caused by the bacteria can be neutralized before cavitation occurs, the cavity may be able to be reversed. Also, if we can somehow make the concentration of calcium and phosphate in the saliva higher than in the tooth, we can increase the chances of reversing a cavity. Therefore, cavities management in a dental office should go much deeper than only diagnosing and filling a cavity. It should also include assessing a person's risk factors and protective traits for developing cavities.
There are several main factors involved in a person's chances of developing cavities. The first is the amount or concentration of the acid producing bacteria in an individual's saliva. The more bacteria there are, the higher the risk for cavities. Another factor is the individual's diet. The more simple sugars in the diet, the more bacteria will produce acid. Lastly, the amount of saliva produced by an individual's salivary glands can also have an effect. We have natural enzymes and buffers in our saliva that kill bacteria. A person with more saliva could also have more of these enzymes and buffers, better neutralizing the pH and allowing more bacteria to be killed.
Due to limited space, in this month's segment we have only discussed the cavity process and some of the factors that may influence an individual's susceptibility to developing cavities. In the next segment, which will appear next month, we will explore in greater detail how to improve cavity prevention and what we can do to help reverse the cavities that we currently have.