Dr. Friedman is a contributing columnist in The Wave Newspaper
SECOND ONLY to the common cold, tooth decay is one of the most common chronic diseases afflicting both adults and children worldwide. Untreated cavities can cause pain and infections that may result in problems with eating and speaking and in children may reduce playtime, hinder learning and may cause them to miss school time. It has been shown that children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than children who have healthy teeth.
Tooth decay begins when the outer layers of the tooth called enamel is damaged. It occurs when certain bacteria in the mouth produce acids that attack the enamel. Tooth decay can lead to cavities which are holes in the teeth. If tooth decay is not treated, it can cause pain and even tooth loss.
Our mouths are full of bacteria. Some bacteria are helpful by aiding in food digestion and they also are beneficial by aiding our immune system in fighting disease. Some however, can be harmful including the ones that play a role in tooth decay. These bacteria combine with the food we eat to form a soft, sticky film on our teeth called plaque. The bacteria in plaque uses the sugar and starch in what we eat and drink to make acids. These acids begin to eat away at the minerals in your enamel. Over time, the plaque can harden and form tartar which cannot be removed by a toothbrush. Besides damaging your teeth, plaque and tartar can also irritate your gums and cause gum disease.
The major risk factors for tooth decay are poor oral hygiene and consumption of too many sugary or starchy foods and drinks. Some people have a higher risk for tooth decay including people who do not produce enough saliva because of medicines they take, certain diseases or some cancer treatments. Children who don’t get enough fluoride are prone to cavity formation. Babies and toddlers who drink from bottles are at risk especially if they are given juice or get bottles at bedtime. This exposes their teeth to sugars for long periods of time. Older people are at risk for tooth decay even if they don’t eat many sugary or starchy foods and many older adults have receding gums. (That is where the expression “long in the tooth” comes from!) The roots of the teeth do not have a protective enamel layer and that raises the risk of decay on the exposed root surfaces of the teeth.
Dentists can detect tooth decay and cavities by examining your teeth with dental instruments. They may also ask you if you have any symptoms. Dental X-rays are often required to make a full and accurate diagnosis. Since early or incipient decay does not usually cause any symptoms, it is very important to visit your dentist every six months so that tooth decay can be detected early on and can be treated.
REMEMBER that prevention and early detection is key and that taking care of your teeth is a collaborative effort between you and your dentist. Proper home care (brushing, flossing, eating healthy foods) along with regular dental visits can keep your teeth and gums healthy for a lifetime.
BE TRUE TO YOUR TEETH AND THEY WON’T BE FALSE TO YOU!
Alan Friedman DDS
Director, Department of Dentistry
The Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center, Inc.