Tooth decay, also called dental caries, is caused by a bacterial infection. There are nearly 500 types of bacteria in our mouths, but only about seven of them are harmful. The bad bacteria make acid when we eat sugars and starches (such as juice, soda pop, raisins, bread or candy). Over time, the acid eats away at our teeth, causing tooth decay that eventually can result in cavities or holes in teeth.
People are not born with the few types of bad bacteria that cause tooth decay. The first time a person gets the bad bacteria usually happens when the bacteria is passed from a parent or caregiver to a child. The bacteria is passed through saliva, such as when people kiss, or when they share drinks, eating utensils or toothbrushes. If children are never exposed to the bad bacteria they can not get tooth decay!
At your dental exam, your dentist will perform a caries risk assessment to determine how likely you are to get tooth decay. Your caries risk can be low, medium, high or very high. If you have the bad bacteria in your mouth you are at some risk for getting cavities, and a higher amount increases your risk.
If tooth decay is found early your dentist can stop it from progressing into a cavity. Prescription fluoride products can be used to strengthen weak spots in the teeth. Fluoride prevents the acid caused by bacteria from dissolving tooth enamel, the hard outer shell of the tooth. Fluoride can not repair cavities themselves, but it can reverse low levels of tooth decay and prevent new cavities from forming. When tooth decay is found early, fluoride products can reverse the damage and save you from getting a filling.
A dental exam can identify what factors are influencing your risk for cavities, such as the amount of bad bacteria in your mouth, your diet, medications and oral hygiene. A specialized treatment plan to stop future tooth decay can be developed by your dentist to target the bacteria and other risk factors. The first step in eliminating the bad bacteria is to treat any existing cavities. An active cavity is a source of bacteria and by removing the decay the source is destroyed. The bad bacteria still exist once fillings are in place, so antibacterial agents, prescription fluoride and Xylitol products provided by a dentist may be necessary. When the bad bacteria are eliminated or controlled at a low level, you are less likely to suffer from tooth decay.
Xylitol is a natural sweetener found in some fruits, plants and trees. Xylitol is used to sweeten products such as breath mints, chewing gum, candy and toothpaste. It can also be purchased in granules and used in place of regular sugar. Xylitol has 40% less calories than sugar. Xylitol can prevent tooth decay by reducing the cavity causing bacteria that live in our mouth.
Xylitol taken in large doses can have a laxative effect but this result is unlikely when taking the small amount for cavity prevention. Keep xylitol away from your pets; it is toxic to dogs.