How to Prevent Tooth Decay

Although the medical system creates a distinction between the mouth and the rest of the body (for treatment purposes), they are, in reality, intimately connected. The mouth and teeth are just as much an indicator of your current health status as anything else. What’s more, there’s a clear connection between what happens in the mouth and what is going on elsewhere.

Gum disease, for instance, isn’t merely the buildup of harmful bacteria on the teeth: it can also fuel high levels of inflammation throughout the body. Likewise, infected gums and harmful bacteria in the mouth can assist in the formation of plaques throughout the cardiovascular system, leading to serious conditions like heart disease. Keeping your mouth healthy and preventing tooth decay, therefore, is not only important for cosmetic reasons but essential for your long term health.

Why Oral Health And Overall Health Are Linked

Just like your gut, your mouth is home to millions of bacteria. These bacteria, under ideal circumstances, are beneficial and help us stay healthy. For instance, bacteria in the mouth can convert the nitrates in green vegetables into nitric oxide, a chemical which helps our blood vessels dilate and lowers blood pressure. But because of poor dietary habits in the West, many of us foster the growth of less beneficial bacteria in our mouths – the kind of bacteria which attack the gum lining and surface of our teeth, leading to gum disease and tooth decay.

dental plaque bacteria
Dental plaque bacteria adhering to tooth surface and causing dental cavities.

Researchers believe that saliva may be a mild antiseptic – an evolutionary defence against tooth decay. However, the production of saliva can be compromised in some people taking certain medications, including commonly prescribed antidepressants, painkillers, and antihistamines. A reduction in saliva means less liquid to neutralise the acids produced by bacteria, potentially leading to a higher likelihood of cavity formation.

Poor oral health is linked to a variety of medical conditions. As well as cardiovascular disease, researchers suspect that poor oral health is partly responsible for low birth weights and premature births in pregnant women, diabetes, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease. Gum disease, for instance, may be linked to diabetes because of the increased chronic inflammation decreasing the effectiveness of insulin in the body. (Inflammation makes it harder for insulin to push glucose into cells). Problems with oral health may also result as Alzheimer’s disease progresses.

Strategies To Prevent Tooth Decay

Because gum disease can cause serious problems elsewhere in the body, it should be a priority to prevent tooth decay and loss in the first place. The good news is that there are plenty of strategies that you can adopt right now to protect your oral health and guard against damaging, acid-producing bacterial buildup. Here’s how to prevent tooth decay.

Limit Snacks Between Meals

Snacking regularly between meals increases the chance of food debris getting stuck between teeth and in gaps around the gum line. When food gets lodged in the mouth and doesn’t drain out, it provides a stable supply of food for bacteria to feed upon. As the bacteria feed, they generate acidic waste products which progressively damage the surface of the teeth, leading to the destruction of the protective enamel and formation of cavities.

Limiting snack intake helps to reduce the chances of food particles building up in the mouth in the first place. It may also help to reduce the consumption of the worst types of food – high-sugar, processed snacks which foster the growth of the most harmful bacteria in the mouth. Avoiding snacks minimises the time that your teeth are exposed to bacterial acids by more than 20 minutes at a time.

Can’t stop eating between meals? Then consider brushing after snacks or chewing on sugar-free gum once you’ve finished eating.

Quit Smoking

Not only is smoking harmful to overall health, but it can directly affect your oral health too. Smoking leads to both stains on the teeth and an increased incidence of gingivitis (gum disease). If left unchecked, smoking can assist in tooth decay, leading to the more serious condition of periodontitis (where infection gets deep into the gums) and can have unfortunate additional consequences, like bad breath.

Quitting smoking is not easy, but with a range of nicotine-transition products and support groups, there’s never been a better time to come off cigarettes.

Be Honest With Yourself About Your Oral Health Needs

The type of oral health routine you choose to prevent tooth decay depends to a large extent on your particular needs. For instance, if you’re currently taking medication that reduces the amount of saliva in the mouth, then you may need to pay extra attention to oral hygiene. Remember, less saliva means less liquid to neutralise acid churned out by bacteria.

If you have a diet containing lots of refined, processed and sugary food, then you may also have to be extra vigilant. Processed food is far more dangerous to oral health than unrefined, whole plant food because it more easily gets into the gaps between teeth and fosters a less-than-ideal mouth microbiome.

You may also experience lower levels of saliva in the mouth if you have asthma, or regularly breathe through the mouth because of another medical condition. Mouth breathing, especially at night, can lead to the formation of plaques, gingivitis and tooth decay because of oral dryness. Breathing through the mouth reduces the amount of saliva available to carry away harmful bacteria and their acidic byproducts.

Use A Flouride Toothpaste

Fluoride has been known for decades to help protect teeth against the ravages of bacteria, especially in the context of modern diet and lifestyles, and so that’s why all dentists recommend it. Fluoride is essential for both adults and children alike, protecting the mouth against infection and helping to remove plaques, the initial stage of tooth decay.

Most commercially-available toothpaste and mouthwashes have sufficient fluoride concentrations to keep your mouth healthy. However, you may require a higher fluoride concentration under certain circumstances. Your dentist can provide you with more potent products if needed.

Check Your Mouth On A Regular Basis

Preventative dentistry is all about discovering problems in the mouth before they require treatment. It’s a good idea, therefore, to check your mouth for problems regularly, looking for anything that seems abnormal. First, check the teeth, both top and bottom, for signs or caries formation. Look for little holes in the teeth (which if caught early enough, can be re-emalised). Second, check around the gums for signs of inflammation, swelling, soreness or bleeding. Identifying and treating gum disease early is much better than leaving it to develop into a far more severe periodontal infection. Finally, look for discoloured teeth and check your tongue.

If you’re in a high-risk group (pregnant, smoker, or on medications), then you may want to check your mouth at least once per week. Remember, your dentist may only see you twice per year, so it’s worth being vigilant and taking responsibility for monitoring your oral health.

Brush At Least Twice Per Day, And Use Interdental Brushes

Dentists recommend that people brush at least twice per day, for a minimum of two minutes to remove as much plaque as possible. If you want to prevent tooth decay or are in a high-risk group, then you may want to brush after every meal, avoiding snacks in between.

Research shows that interdental brushes are a potent way to remove plaque from the gaps between the teeth, and so you may want to consider regularly using these kinds of brushes or flossing.

Do Orthodontic Treatments Lead To Tooth Decay?

Orthodontic treatments involve enhancing the appearance of the teeth through a range of cosmetic devices, including braces. Many people worry that braces and other devices lead to tooth decay, but the short answer is that they do not –  at least not alone.

The problem with oral appliances is not so much the devices themselves, but the fact that they can harbour food particles which can then go on to cause tooth decay if not removed. The best approach, therefore, is to adopt impeccable oral hygiene, removing bits of food from around these appliances, before harmful bacteria can metabolise them.

The Best Brushing Technique

To prevent tooth decay, you not only have to see your dentist regularly but also make sure that your brushing technique is correct. Incorrect brushing techniques leave a film of plaque on the teeth which bacteria can then use to eat away at your enamel.

  • Use A Small Brush With Soft Bristles. Small brushes not only enable you to brush behind back teeth, but they also help to avoid damage to the gums caused by excessive brushing. Softer bristles may help in this regard too.
  • Apply Sufficient Pressure. The only way to remove plaque from the surface of teeth is to apply a mechanical brushing action. Sometimes, though, people may not apply enough pressure to remove the plaque effectively, negating many of the benefits of brushing. A good rule of thumb is to use enough pressure so that you can feel the action of the bristles on your gum line. For those who are more technically-minded, you need a brushing pressure of around 150 grams.
  • Use An Electric Toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes may be able to more effectively remove plaque and bacteria from around the teeth than manual brushing.
  • Use Specialist Brushes. If you have brackets or wires in your mouth, you may want to use specialist brushes to get in underneath and remove food debris.

wire brushing

  • Brush For Two Minutes. Brushing for two minutes ensures that you remove the majority of harmful bacteria and plaque from your mouth.
  • Brush On The Inside Of The Gumline. The inside of the gumline is a neglected area. Don’t forget to brush behind the front teeth, both top and bottom.
  • Use The Proper Technique. Brushing technique makes a significant difference to how well you clean your teeth. Two critical actions get the best results: gentle rotations on the surface of each tooth, and vertical brushing actions over both teeth and gums. Avoid, if possible, horizontal brushing action, as this can wear away teeth and damage gums.

brushing technique

What About Flossing?

Can flossing prevent tooth loss? While flossing is something of a controversial topic in and of itself, most dentists are in agreement that flossing cannot replace brushing. Some dentists recommend flossing for people who use orthodontic devices in the hope that it will remove more food particles. However, there is a worry that some people will substitute flossing for brushing, leading to decreased brushing time. If you want to floss, then it should be strictly in addition to brushing – it shouldn’t replace it.

flossing

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