A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Your sweet tooth and cavities: Does one cause the other?

There’s often nothing sweeter than an ice cream cone on a warm day, your favorite candy to munch on or a refreshing sugary drink with your meal.

But, all that sweet isn’t good for you, or for your teeth, even though it tastes that way.

Cavities, also known as dental caries, are damage to a tooth caused by snacking, sipping sugary drinks and buildup on teeth. If left untreated, a cavity can get bigger and can cause symptoms like sensitivity, pain and swelling or lead to tooth loss.

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There’s often nothing sweeter than an ice cream cone on a warm day, your favorite candy to munch on or a refreshing sugary drink with your meal. But, all that sweet isn’t good for you, or for your teeth

How does sugar cause cavities?

Sugar is what starts the process of a cavity, but it’s not the direct cause for cavities.

Your mouth has different kinds of bacteria. Some are good for your dental health and help with things like healthy gums and good breath. Other bacteria are harmful.

The bad bacteria produce acid that forms a plaque on teeth and removes minerals from your tooth enamel. The plaque and demineralization weakens and destroys enamel, causing cavities. If the plaque isn’t washed away by your saliva or brushing, your mouth becomes too acidic and cavities will form.

“When sugar is ingested, existing bacteria in the mouth consume it and release harmful acids that dissolve tooth enamel,” said Dr. Pamela Murphy, dentist with Chippewa Falls Dental Center. “Sugar makes your saliva more acidic, which then corrodes the tooth and forms a cavity.”

It’s not just sweets and soda causing cavities

Simple carbohydrates, often found in some of our favorite foods like bread, crackers, chips and pasta, can be just as harmful to your teeth as candy. These carbohydrates break down into sugar and can linger in your mouth causing cavities if you don’t wash them out.

Watch the kids

Children who frequently snack or drink liquids other than water often have a higher level of bacteria in their mouth and are more likely to have early childhood caries, also known as baby bottle tooth decay.

“The cavity risk for infants and toddlers may be higher due to frequent feedings throughout the day and night, which results in more exposure to sugar,” Dr. Murphy said. “A child should not sleep with a bottle with milk because the liquids sit in the mouth for a prolonged period, feeding cavity-causing bacteria.”

What can you do to prevent cavities?

You don’t need to give up your favorite sweets or treats to prevent cavities, but limiting your sugar intake helps.

“Moderation in diet is key. While it’s ideal to eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in vegetables and complex carbohydrates, it can be hard to maintain,” said Dr. Murphy. “Drinking water at meal times and throughout the day helps keep the oral cavity neutral and makes it more difficult for plaque to adhere to the teeth and tongue.”

But, the best thing you can do for you and your mouth to help prevent cavities is to maintain good oral care.

“Annual exams, X-rays and cleanings are essential in preventing oral disease,” Dr. Murphy said. “Prevention and making changes before disease occurs will allow people to enjoy a better quality of life and a healthier smile. Treating cavities early while they are small is much easier than waiting until there is pain or other symptoms.”

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