How do cavities form and what can I do as a patient to lower my chances of developing new ones?

The process in which cavies are formed is an interesting one.  Some people are more susceptible to decay than others, but there are some steps that everyone can take to lessen the chance of developing new cavities and protecting any dental work that you currently have.

           First, let’s start out by explaining the science behind it all.  Teeth are composed of 3 main layers.

Anatomy of a Tooth

Enamel layer:  This is the hard outer “shield” that protects the inner part of your tooth from all of the wear and tear that your teeth go through on a daily basis throughout your lifetime. 

Dentin layer:  This layer lies beneath the enamel layer and is the part of the tooth that has some “feeling” and is much softer than the outer enamel shell.  Some people have very sensitive dentin and other not so much resulting in a range of teeth sensitivity among the population.

Pulp aka the “nerve” of the tooth:  This is more of a chamber filled with nerves and blood supply used in tooth development.  This part gives you that cold sensation when biting into a cold ice cream cone for a few seconds.

Cavities, or decay, occur from acid attack to the enamel surface of your teeth first.  This acid attack can come in many forms.  Direct acid attack comes from acid foods and beverages like soda, citrous fruits, and coffee.  Indirect acid attack comes from the bacteria in your mouth.  These bacteria feed off of carbohydrates, which are in just about everything other than water, and produce acid which in turn dissolves your tooths enamel. 

Before you start to think about only consuming water, there is hope!  Your saliva is amazing and works as a protective mechanism against all this acid attack.  It acts as a buffer to raise the pH in the mouth back to a stable environment that actually promotes tooth re-mineralization.  The key to all of this is timing.  It takes roughly 30min for your saliva to neutralize acids in the mouth that occurred from either having a meal, snack, or beverage.  So, the worst thing you can do for your teeth is to have a sip of that soda or a bite of that snack every 30min throughout the day- this causes the pH in your mouth to always be low enough to be dissolving tooth structure and causing decay.

I recommend staying away from acidic snacks and beverages in general.  However, the safest way to consume these would be during meal times rather than between meals.  We all need to eat and from a dental point of view, 3 meals a day is recommended to allow your saliva to promote remineralization of your teeth for much of the day.

Things to remember…

  • Cavities are caused by acid attack to the enamel surface of your teeth eventually eroding into the dentin layer and forming a cavity
  • You cannot feel cavities until they are very deep
  • It takes 30min for your saliva to neutralize the acids in your mouth following food or beverage to promote remineralization of your teeth
  • Snacking or sipping a beverage throughout the day can cause a high rate of cavities
  • Stick to 3 meals a day if possible

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