Tooth decay, or as the professionals call it 'caries', is nearly entirely preventable. So why do I still spend a significant amount of my working life fixing decayed teeth? Most people know that in order to prevent it you should brush your teeth and limit your sugar intake, but I have found that's often where the understanding ends. It can be a complicated and multifactorial disease, but understanding the basics will put you ahead of the pack in preventing your own teeth from suffering this fate.
Demineralisation V's Remineralisation
There is a constant war being waged in your mouth that you probably didn't even know about. It's easy to think of teeth as just little white rocks that are there for chewing on. They are very much alive though, being connected to your body's blood circulation, and are also in a constant state of mineral exchange with your saliva.
When you eat, the bacteria in your mouth turn sugars into acid. The acid then dissolves minerals out of the hard tissues of your teeth, (enamel and dentine). This is the process of demineralisation. Your saliva then mounts a counter-attack and washes over your teeth replacing the lost minerals from its own supply, which is remineralisation. Saliva is AMAZING, and just one of its many functions is to act as a reservoir of minerals to help remineralise your teeth.
Caries happens when this cycle gets out of whack, and demineralisation is happening more than remineralisation.
A Perfect Storm
A few factors need to come together for the scales to be tipped towards demineralisation and the start of caries.
- Plaque, (bacteria), needs to be present.
- Sugars need to be present.
Caries won't happen overnight, but it will happen… if the right conditions are present for an extended period of time.
Tackling these three factors is the simplest way to prevent caries.
- Brush with a fluoride toothpaste and floss daily to remove plaque. This means every surface of every tooth, not just the bits that are easy to get at.
- Limit the frequency of your intake of sugars, including natural sugars found in fruit. Frequency is the key, give your teeth a chance to recover after each demineralisation attack and tip the scales back in favour of remineralisation.
- Commit to making caries prevention part of your lifestyle and daily routine. We all have the odd slip-up here and there, but it's what you do every day that will make the difference.
There are other things that will increase or decrease your risk of caries, but it absolutely will not happen without the factors described above. Try not to get caught up in the nitty gritty while ignoring the basics. It's easy to find toothbrushes now that come with fancy angled bristles, flexible handles for access, indicator strips for this and that; every variety you could possibly desire. While these things are fun, they're pointless if the brush never makes it into your mouth!