True or False: Cavities are Contagious?


TRUE (kinda).1,2

While we usually blame sugary foods as the main culprits for cavities, it’s actually bacteria that are the root cause. These bacteria form a sticky film on teeth, called plaque. These bacteria feed off of food particles left in your teeth, with a special gusto for sugary foods. When these bacteria consume sugar, they create an acid, which in turn harms teeth and causes cavities. Like the bacteria that cause the common cold, these bacteria can be passed from person to person, specifically through the exchange of saliva containing cavity-causing bacteria. And just in case you’re thinking it, yes kissing has been linked to the spread of cavities.

“Kissing between couples can also cause the spread of harmful bacteria. Smigel has seen many patients, particularly women, who have clean, healthy mouths, discover a cavity or two after entering into a relationship with a man who has cavities, gum disease or hasn’t been to the dentist in several years.”2

 For the most part, cavities and other oral health issues like gingivitis are preventable with a little care. Regretfully, according to an American Dental Association (ADA) poll conducted in 2008, as whole, the US isn’t doing a great job taking care of our teeth:3

  • Only half of Americans (49%) say they floss their teeth once a day or more often, and 10% say they never floss.
  • Though dentists recommend the use of mouthwash or rinse as an important addi­tion to the oral care routine on a case-by-case basis, 52% of Americans say they don’t believe that mouthwash and rinses have any health benefits.
  • One in five Americans do not brush twice a day.

And if this wasn’t convincing enough. 3

  • 55% of Americans ranked “smile” as “very important” in the attractiveness of others. This was higher than all other physical attributes, including eyes, hair, skin and build/figure.

Feeling a little grossed out? There is a reason I chose to share this with you, and it wasn’t to make you swear off kissing. It was to encourage you to take better care of your smile.  Most people know the basics, brush, floss and visit the dentist twice yearly for preventative check-ups. But past that most people’s knowledge is a bit fuzzy. Well, here is a bit of clarification:

Brushing:4 The ADA recommends brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Brushing is important because it helps to remove plaque from the surface of teeth. When brushing choose a soft-bristled brush. It might seem like a harder bristle would help remove more plaque, but this can damage your gums, which leads to a whole slew of other problems. Replace your toothbrush every three or four months, or sooner if the bristles are frayed, as a worn toothbrush won’t do a good job of cleaning your teeth. Additionally, don’t forget the toothpaste. It really does help. Toothpaste has been specially formulated to help remove plaque from your teeth. Most toothpastes also contain fluoride, which actually helps to strengthen the tooth against acid and prevent cavities.5 Lastly, it’s all in the technique. Check out the ADA’s step-by-step directions for proper brushing.

Floss:4 Cleaning between the teeth once a day with floss and other tools designed to get in-between teeth help remove plaque between the teeth, areas where a toothbrush can’t reach. It is essential in preventing periodontal (gum) disease  as well as preventing cavities in between teeth. Again, just like brushing it’s all in the technique. Check out the ADA’s step-by-step directions for proper brushing.

Regular Preventative Check-ups: Often overlooked, it’s important to visit your dentist twice yearly for a preventative visit. Dentist’s tools can removed caked on plaque, called tartar, that even a properly executed brushing and flossing regime’s cannot. Regular visits can also help to catch little problems (like minor cavities or the beginning of gingivitis) before they become major. Not only does this help prevent painful complications, but also can save you significant amount of money (think fixing a small cavity (roughly $150 versus a root canal at $1000).  That being said, without dental insurance regular check-ups can be expensive. For UNC students Pearce & Pearce offers a voluntary dental plan. You can learn more about the benefits here. The UNC Dental School also several different lower cost options. To learn more about their services visit their Patient Care site.

A few other useful tips.

  • Avoid continuous snacking and sipping between meals. Snacking and sipping on sugary drinks fuels cavity-causing bacteria, increases acid production and essentially baths your teeth in acid.
  • Use anti-cavity and fluoride mouthwash to augment your oral care regime.
  • Chew gu that contains xylitol. Xylitol has been linked to reducing cavities. If you can’t brush your teeth after a particularly sugary meal or drink, just chew some gum. Want to know if your favorite gum contains xylitol? Just check the label. To be effective, xylitol should be one of the top 3 ingredients. Don’t want to read labels, grab a pack of Trident or Ice Breakers, both contain xylitol. Not big into gum? Swishing your mouth out with water also works.

Have other oral health questions? The ADA has provides a comprehensive A-Z index of all things teeth and mouth! Or ask em’ here and I’ll do my best to answer them!

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