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Sugar and cavities: The "tooth" behind what causes decay


Halloween wouldn’t be the same without horror films, costumes, and of course, candy. The more candy, the more successful the trick-or-treating. But when children start sorting through their sugary treasures, it may not be a bad idea to have a toothbrush on standby to help combat the real horror of Halloween — cavities.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Thomas Salinas talks about why sugar, something most people -- particularly kids -- love, can cause cavities and dental decay. Dr. Salinas is a professor of dentistry at the Mayo Clinic, a world renown medical practice and research group in Rochester, Minnesota.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Salinas.

So what is it about sugar that can cause such havoc in our teeth? According to Dr. Salinas, the fact that sugar is so easily broken down by bacteria that resides in the mouth is the root of most of the problems that it causes. “It [the bacteria] breaks down sugar and lots of different types of sugar into, ultimately, acids. And acids create a problem, particularly for the teeth, in that they can decalcify or demineralize and take away its structural content, creating dental decay,” he says.

But the recipe for tooth decay takes more than just sugar, it takes four ingredients: Sugar, bacteria, a susceptible tooth surface, and time. “Regardless of how those are aligned, typically dental decay will occur under the right conditions,” says Dr. Salinas.

This doesn’t mean that each person will have the same reaction to sugary foods, as “everybody has a different response to it.” Dr. Salinas cites a person’s genetic makeup as a good determinant of how strongly or not this process will occur, as some people naturally have better resistance in warding off tooth decay and cavities.

Others may have biological factors that make them more susceptible to tooth decay and cavities. An example of this is the inability of the body to create a substantial amount of saliva.

“When acids are produced in a certain environment, the body, in this case, saliva, will tend to lessen its effect. And everybody has a different buffering capacity, so to speak. So, saliva is a very important part of this process and patients that have a dry mouth are particularly susceptible to developing cavities or dental decay, as it’s known,” says. Dr. Salina.

There are ways to fight off tooth decay and cavities, with the most obvious being to keep teeth brushed. Dr. Salinas suggests other methods as well that include:

  • Topical fluorides—This makes the teeth more resistant to breakdown by acid, and many are available over the counter.
  • Chewing gum containing xylitol—Xylitol is a sweetening agent that has antibacterial effects, warding off the process of dental decay.
  • Mouthwashes—Some prescription mouthwashes kill the bacteria that initiates the process of tooth decay on contact. They often reduce the amount of plague accumulation.