13 Myths about Cavities: Debunked
Cavities can seem like mysterious beasts. We’re told a lot about them from the time we’re young as a parenting tactic to get us to brush our teeth and take care of our dental hygiene. So it’s no wonder that even as adults we get confused. Are they genetic? No, they’re caused by eating too much sugar. Maybe both? We decided it’s time for a total shake down of what cavities are, what they’re not, where they come from, and how they relate to your genetics.
We’ll start with the most common misconception:
Myth #1: Cavities are caused by eating too much sugar.
No. Indirectly, yes, but what matters is exposure and the amount of acid the bacteria in your mouth produce in response to the foods you eat. Starchy and sugary foods cause the most acid production in your saliva. To break down the food molecules, bacteria spit out acid to digest everything that ends in “-ose”: maltose, dextrose, glucose, and fructose.
The other key is the amount of exposure your teeth have to acid. If you eat a big meal full of bread and refined carbohydrates, then that’s a lot of exposure and stress on your teeth. Or, if you enjoy drinking sugary sodas or sports drinks—stop. All of that sugar sitting on your teeth causes the naturally occurring bacteria in your mouth to continue to create acid until you brush your teeth and clear it away.
Often, the bacteria hunker down between your teeth and wreak havoc there. And cavities don’t repair themselves, either. Once the decay party starts, it keeps raging until you treat it.
In a pinch, rinse your mouth thoroughly with water or mouthwash to reduce the amount of acid, and brush your teeth once you have access to your toothbrush.
Eat less sugar and refined carbohydrates. Your teeth (and waistline) will thank you.
Myth #2: Pain indicates cavities.
Nope. Lack of pain in your gums doesn’t necessarily mean you’re cavity-free. So don’t be surprised if your dentist tells you otherwise.
Although mild tooth decay does not cause pain, more advanced decay gets at the nerve, which is why it hurts so dang bad.
If you’re having severe tooth pain, that tooth is probably a goner. You’ll also probably need more expensive procedures, like a root canal or a filling, to get rid of the tooth and keep decay from spreading.
The best way to avoid cavities (aside from dropping sugar) is to brush and floss at least twice daily, or catch it early and visit your dentist’s office on a regular basis—every six months or so.
Myth #3: Cavities are totally genetic.
Wrong-o! But there’s also a caveat. Some people are born with weaker tooth structure than others, making it easier for them to develop cavities, especially if those two people ate the same diet. Diet makes the difference! This video from Tech Insider and Dr. Ada Cooper, DDS gives a great (and quick) overview about cavities, what how they form, and what puts people at risk of developing them. Super helpful vid.
Myth #4: Putting Aspirin next to a tooth helps with a toothache.
What? No. You have to swallow it first. Letting Aspirin hang out on your tooth can cause burns in your gums, which could eventually lead to an abscess (ew).
Myth #5: Kids get cavities more often than adults.
False. You’d think it were true with all the candy and sugar children tend to eat. But there has actually been a decrease in children’s cavities over the years and an increase in adult cavities. Primarily, because modern medications cause dry mouth, and dry mouth is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
Saliva is crucial for maintaining the homeostasis of a healthy mouth. Dry mouth reduces the amount of saliva to wash away bacteria, neutralize acids, disinfect your mouth (Fun fact, our spit does that, too.), and keep food from sticking to your teeth. And we all know what happens when food sticks to our teeth for too long. Hello, acid.
Myth #6: All fillings need to be replaced.
Not necessarily. Only if you’re an irresponsible tooth owner. Fillings tend to wear out if a patient is physically tough on their fillings by grinding or clenching. They only need to be replaced if the tooth cracks or if a cavity forms around it. In that case, you should really consider flossing more often.
Take care of your fillings by brushing and flossing twice daily, and you should be able to keep them for life.
Myth #7: If my food is sugar-free, it won’t cause cavities.
Hang on. We’re not saying that eating carrots contributes to cavities, but if you consistently eat acidic foods, like diet soda or lemons, you’re more at risk for wearing down the enamel and creating opportunity for bacteria to hide in those nooks and crannies and cause further decay.
If it has a low pH, make sure you drink plenty of water to wash away food residue and maybe even brush your teeth after lunch.
Myth #8: Eating multiple times per day helps reduce cavity risk.
Not really. Even though your saliva contains helpful minerals that can ward off decay, constantly bombarding your mouth with starch and sugar all day causes acid build up.
The key is to give your teeth a chance to recover and rebalance their environment. Broken down sugar can linger on your teeth for up to twenty minutes after eating, that means more exposure to sugar and more acid production from those poor, overworked bacteria. Healthy snacks, and even ones with naturally occurring sugars like fruit, are still perfectly fine. Just make sure you leave enough time between gnoshing for your teeth to clean house before the next meal.
Myth #9: The brown spot on your tooth is definitely a cavity.
Maybe. It could also be a young cavity that was interrupted by re-hardened enamel.
Myth #10: Tooth sensitivity means you have a cavity.
It’s possible, but you could also just have sensitive teeth. Check your gums, are they pulled up or receding? That could also be causing tooth sensitivity. It’s true that sharp pain in reaction to hot or cold foods and beverages or even biting into an apple the wrong way can point to the location of a cavity, but there are certainly other explanations for your inability to eat popsicles.
The only way to find out is to get in the chair. The good news is that teeth sensitivity can be taken care of with special store-bought toothpaste.
Myth #11: Root canals and cavities are basically synonymous.
You’d think so, but nope. Untreated cavities can certainly be reason for a root canal, but only if the nerve inside the tooth is damaged because of the decay. Other reasons for a root canal include cracked, chipped, or otherwise broken teeth.
Even excessive grinding or clenching can cause trauma to your teeth. In that case, may we suggest meditation or a massage to ease the stress?
Myth #12: Gaps in teeth put you at risk for cavities.
This is another grey area. The short answer is that it depends on the size of the gap. Large gaps actually make it easier to brush and floss the bacteria and acid from between your teeth. The narrower the gap though, the harder it is to keep them from making a home out of your pearly whites.
Better safe than sorry! Make sure to floss after you brush. And do both of those at least twice daily. (Have we mentioned flossing? All the cool kids do it.)
Myth #13: Cavities can’t be healed naturally (or, without a dental drill).
Yes they can! But they have to be in the beginning stages or even in the middle stages of decay. However, once they graduate from young brown spots on your teeth to harmful nerve damagers, we strongly suggest heading in to your dentist’s office. You don’t want to mess around with bacteria that could lead to an abscess or a more serious infection.
For young cavities, or maybe you just want to improve your overall oral health, Dr. Axe offers a 4-step process on how to repair young, non-threatening cavities naturally.
Essentially, focus on whole, unprocessed foods without refined sugar. Fruit sugars are okay to eat and can actually help balance your oral flora and fauna. Also, if you’ve never tried fermented foods, your teeth would thank you very much if you started.
And there you have it!
The thirteen biggest myths about cavities: debunked.
The main lesson to take away is to be a staunch advocate for your teeth and focus on preventative care. Once you’ve got cavities, they’re tough punks to ditch. Your teeth are your buddies that help you enjoy the best things in life, from chips and guacamole, honeycrisp apples, and veggies with hummus to grandma’s classic German potato salad.
And don’t make your annual visit to the dentist’s office the only time you floss. Bloody gums are gross.