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There are about a bigillion things you have to worry about as a parent, and cavities is one of them. As with anything though, knowledge is power. Understanding how cavities are made can help you kids protect against them. Below we’ll look at the main ways you can keep your children free from the dangers of tooth decay.
The Basics of Tooth Decay
A cavity happens when the outer layer of your teeth (the enamel) is worn down. First, let’s take a look as to why enamel gets worn down in the first place. This may get a tiny bit technical for a second, but bear with me. Again, the more you know about tooth decay the better you can fight it.
Enamel erosion takes place during a process called demoralization. Your teeth are made up primarily of phosphate ions and calcium ions. Together these form a material called hydroxyapatite (we’ll just refer to it as H) – that’s what actually makes up the enamel on your teeth. H is pretty great at keeping your teeth protected, but it’s got a major weakness – acid.
As one might expect, the acidity levels our mouths are constantly changing because you’re eating a bunch of stuff that has varying levels of acidity. If you remember from science class, acidity is measured by something called pH. For reference, standard tap water is around a pH of 7. Anything below that is acidic, anything above that is basic.
Changes in the pH levels in your mouth aren’t a big issue until they get below a certain point – specifically 5.5. When the pH in your mouth dips below 5.5, your teeth start to demineralize. This means that parts of it are basically being ripped away, leaving you ultimately with less enamel. Less enamel means less protection. Ultimately, if enough enamel is worn away you get a cavity (also known as a dental carie)
Hold on a second though – enamel repairs itself, right? Indeed, it does. As with all parts of the body, the teeth are pretty darned good at repairing themselves after an injury. The issue of tooth decay (and by extension, cavities) is when the teeth are worn down more quickly than they can rebuild. That’s where the issues are.
So, to recap, your teeth have enamel. That enamel is made of a certain substance (called hydroxyapatite, or simply H) that starts to wear down when the pH levels in your mouth get below a certain point (5.5). Your teeth will rebuild their enamel, but often times they can’t rebuild fast enough. This results in tooth decay, meaning that your enamel gets worn down.
Alright, so how do we keep this from happening? Well, there are two ways really. The first is to better protect our teeth. According to the American Dental Association, fluoride is the only chemical we’re aware of that helps to strengthen enamel. The way it works is pretty nifty. Normally, when your teeth are rebuilding, they rebuilt with what they’re made of, our good friend H. That’s nice and all, but we already know that H is pretty weak against acid – the same thing is just going to happen again. Using fluoride changes this. When you use fluoride, it slightly alters the way your teeth fix themselves. Instead of rebuilding with H, the fluoride ion (F-) inserts itself and instead your teeth are rebuilt with fluorapatite, or F. It just so happens that F is pretty resistant to acid.
If fluoride is present, your teeth basically rebuild themselves with a stronger, more resistant material. They just need the building blocks to do so. You will normally get fluoride from one of two sources: water and toothpaste. As fluoride is a naturally occurring element (it comes from the element fluorine) it will show up in any natural water (lakes, rivers, etc.). On top of that, a tiny bit is added to our water supply to provide our bodies with the tools necessary to build strong teeth.
The other way of obtaining fluoride is through dental care products, mainly toothpaste. Brushing with fluoride allows it to get applied directly to the surface of your teeth. This means it can instantly be used during the rebuilding process.
Now, there’s a fair bit of talk out there about the dangers of fluoride. Some of these concerns are valid in a technical sense, but often times they’re blown out of proportion. For example, a study done on the effects of fluoride on the structure and function of epithelial cells shows that there are adverse health effects, but only at concentrations far beyond what the normal human would consume.
Studies show that there is a definite link between excessive consumption of fluoride and an ailment referred to as dental fluorosis. Dental fluorosis is a purely cosmetic condition that causes your teeth to get some white spots on them. Along with white spots, fluorosis can actually result in less protected teeth due to the higher subsurface area.
The major concern here is that fluorosis is permanent, although there are plenty of ways to treat it, such as teeth bleaching. The biggest reason why your child might get fluorosis is from swallowing toothpaste. Regularly brushing and drinking fluoridated water won’t supply anywhere near enough fluoride for fluorosis to occur.
The second way to protect your teeth against acid attacks that wear down enamel is by choosing what food you eat. First, let’s look at how exactly food effects our mouth and why it leads to a change in pH levels.
As you probably already know, there are tons of small critters that live in your mouth. These are referred to a bunch of different ways: bacteria, germs, plaque, tartar, etc. Whatever you call them, they’re small (often single cell) organisms that live in your mouth. That’s not a bad thing – they help with all sorts of stuff like breaking down food. They also (accidentally) hurt your teeth.
Whenever you eat or drink, the critters in your mouth eat too. Those are the main foods they eat are sugars and starches. Whenever they feed, they basically produce acid. This acid (along with the acid level of your food and drink) is what causes those pH changes. This means that even something that’s not acidic at all, like a chocolate bar, can make your mouth more acidic.
There are a few things to note about the critters and their feasting. The first is, they’re always there and you can’t get rid of them. Even if you rinse your mouth out with mouthwash 20 times a day, you’ll never get rid of the critters in there, so pick your battles wisely! The second is that they’ll continue to feed on sugars and starches long after you’re done eating. The standard time is about 20 minutes. This means every time you sip a drink, eat a snack, take a breath mint, etc. your teeth are getting a full 20 minutes of acid erosion. Trust me, that can build up quickly.
The biggest thing you can do to prevent the critters in your mouth from eating is to control what you and your children are eating. There are a number of studies that show how different foods can affect your teeth. Sugary candy (especially things that sit in the mouth for a while, like suckers and lozenges), soft drinks and citrus fruits are generally looked down upon in the dental community. Yes, they taste incredible (especially my favorite, Twix), but they’re pretty rubbish for your teeth.
There are also some foods that you can eat that’ll help your teeth too. Products high in calcium and phosphorus (the things that H are made of) like cheese, milk, nuts and meats are pretty great for rebuilding enamel. Additionally, foods that are high in water such as vegetables and certain fruits (apples, pears) are good for your teeth. The extra water dilutes the sugar and makes it more difficult for the critters in your mouth to feed. Finally, combining foods that aren’t as good for your teeth (such as acidic fruits) with larger meals will help to dilute their acidity. If your kids plan on binge-eating oranges, try to encourage them to drink some water and eat a few nuts along the way!
I’d be remiss if I wrote an article about preventing cavities and didn’t list the three major pillars of keeping your teeth health. There’s nothing complex or complicated here – just ten minutes a day to keep everything in your mouth in working order.
1. Brush twice a day with a fluoride based toothpaste for two minutes each. Studies show that the longer you brush, the more plaque you remove, by a significant amount. Brushing for a full two minutes removes more than 25% more plaque than only brushing for 45 seconds. Get a timer (humans tend to be pretty bad at keeping track of time) and make sure you go for the full 120 seconds.
2. Floss every day in the morning. Flossing at night as well is even better, but good luck getting your kids to floss twice. Make sure you get around every tooth and into the gum line. Dentists recommend spending 10-15 seconds per tooth to get all the bad stuff out, but sometimes that not realistic. Just make sure to get everyone in the family to spend a good two or three minutes flossing. If that’s not viable, think about picking up a water flosser. They work better and they take way less time. You’ll be able to floss your whole mouth in about 60 seconds.
3. Rinse with mouthwash. Remember to not eat or drink for 30 minutes afterwards – the mouthwash is still working! If you can, get a mouthwash with fluoride in it for a bit of extra help, but that’s not totally necessary. The main idea is to flush out all of the stuff from breakfast that you loosened up by brushing and flossing. If you’re concerned about the extreme burning sensation from mouthwash, look into picking up a natural mouthwash or an alcohol free mouthwash.
That’s it. It’s not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination. Do these three things and you and your kids will have healthy, cavity free teeth.
Oral health can be an intimidating subject, but at its root, it’s pretty simple. Use fluoride, brush twice a day, floss and stay away from sugary foods. That’s it! Follow these simple ideas and you won’t be paying the dentist extra cash to fill up the holes in your kid’s teeth!