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What's behind dental cavities?

Cavities are a problem for adults and children alike. Some people seem more susceptible to cavities than others, and the pH of the mouth and other factors may play a role in the formation of cavities.

The number of dental caries, or cavities, increases with age. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, dental decay remains the most prevalent chronic disease in both children and adults, even though it is largely preventable. Although it may seem like children who love sugar would have the highest rate of cavities, data actually shows that 92 percent of adults in the U.S. age 20 to 64 have dental caries in their permanent teeth and an average of 3.28 missing teeth. Canadian oral Health statistics indicate that 96 percent of adults have dental caries.

What causes a cavity?

Bacteria are the main culprit behind cavities. Bacteria migrate into the mouth and are constantly present on the gums, teeth and tongue. While most oral bacteria are not harmful, certain types can prove troublesome. Bacteria attach to the enamel of the teeth and eventually start to form a colony. Proteins present in saliva mix with the bacteria, which then forms a hard layer on the tooth known as plaque.

Sugar plays a role in the process because the bacteria use sugar as a food source. The sugar also helps them stick to the tooth surface, making it more difficult for bacteria to be cleared away with saliva. As bacteria eat the sugar, they produce waste, which is acidic. Over time, this acid can wear away at the tough enamel on teeth, making it porous. These holes can become bigger; eventually forming what is known as a cavity.

It may take a while before you realize you have a cavity because the enamel of the tooth doesn’t have nerve fibers. But once the cavity becomes large enough to expose the sensitive dentin within, pain ensues.

Preventing cavities

Cavities can be largely prevented by brushing and flossing regularly to remove extra bacteria from the teeth, and preventing them from attaching and building up on the teeth.

Regular dental check-ups and cleanings also play a preventative role. Dentists have equipment that can effectively clean teeth in areas that can sometimes be difficult to keep clean with just manual brushing.

High susceptibility to cavities

Medications and biology can affect the pH of a person’s mouth and contribute to the formation of dental caries. When pH drops, demineralization of the tooth enamel occurs and cavities form.  Some forms of bacteria contribute to tooth decay more than others.

As mentioned, sugar feeds bacteria growth. Research by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry has found that it’s not often the amount of sugar eaten at a given time, but the frequency of sugar exposure that can lead to cavities. Sucrose, it seems, is bacteria’s preferred energy source. Saliva production is important for keeping bacteria at bay. Individuals who produce fewer bacteria, due to medication or their physical history, may be more susceptible to cavities.

Dental caries are a common Health problem. Knowing what causes them can help with prevention.


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