As a doctor of the oral cavity my job is to diagnose and treat dental disease as well as other pathologies of the mouth. Often times I am asked the question, “Why do I get cavities?” or “How can I help to prevent decay for myself and my children?” This brings to mind an important point to understand – dental caries, or cavities, is one disease that the body cannot heal by itself. If you have a cold, you can control the symptoms until your body’s immune system catches up with and kills off the virus. If you have strep throat your physician will prescribe an appropriate antibiotic so that the bacteria can be killed and the body will heal. If you have a cavity the only way that the tooth can be fixed is for the decay to be removed and the tooth restored.
When I have a patient that comes into my office with extensive decay I not only have to restore their teeth to health but also find out what is the cause of the decay so the patient can prevent further disease. One of the most common items I hear when examining the patient’s diet is soda. The worst case I ever heard was one patient who consumed two 2 Liter bottles of soda per day! Let’s look at how decay starts with the help of soda. First, the sugar in the soda combines with bacteria that live in your mouth to form acid. This acid plus the acid in the soft drinks attack the teeth. Each acid attack lasts about 20 minutes and the acid attacks start over again with each sip. The ongoing acid attacks weaken the enamel. Cavities begin when the enamel is damaged. Remember that diet or sugar free soda still has acid that can harm your teeth and although sports drinks or fruit juices aren’t carbonated they still contain sugar and acid which cause decay. One simple home experiment is to take one of your child’s baby teeth that has fallen out and put it in a glass of soda. Check it every ½ day and see how fast the tooth dissolves.
In 2000 The University of Minnesota School of Dentistry conducted laboratory tests to analyze what the pH (or how much acid) is in drinks. A neutral pH is 7.00 which is water. Battery acid has a pH of 1.00. A few examples of common drinks are Mountain Dew – pH = 3.22, Diet Coke – pH = 3.39, Pepsi – pH = 2.49, Gatorade – pH = 2.95. How about sugar content? The USDA statistics for a 12 oz. can of Minute Maid Grape Soda is 11.9 tsp of sugar! Same with Orange Slice. Hawaiian Fruit Punch is 10.2 tsp. You see my point.
So what can you do to help prevent decay? The first would be to drink soda in moderation. Don’t sip on soda for prolonged periods of time. This continuously starts the acid attack over. Use a straw so the sugar stays away from your teeth and rinse your mouth with water to dilute the acid and sugar. Be sure the last thing you put in your mouth before going to bed is a toothbrush. Your saliva flow decreases when you sleep. If you leave the acid and sugar on your teeth all night you are providing a perfect environment for the acid and sugars to do their dirty work on your teeth. Read the labels of what you are drinking. You may be surprised what you find. Drink water instead of soda or fruit drinks. It has no acid, no sugar and no calories and it contributes to overall health. Be sure to have regular dental exams and cleanings. Flossing regularly and using a fluoride toothpaste will help remove plaque (the sticky bacterial film on the teeth) and help prevent tooth decay.
As much as I enjoy what I do in restoring people’s smiles and caring for their dental needs, I have to share with you that it is extremely rewarding to have a patient come in to my office with perfect teeth, perfect home care and no more dental needs than periodic preventive visits.