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Look After Your Teeth and Prevent Dental Decay

Updated on August 25, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

Visit Your Dentist Regularly

Dental repairs may be required if you don't practice good oral hygiene.
Dental repairs may be required if you don't practice good oral hygiene. | Source

Why are Your Teeth Important?

Your teeth are the gateway to your digestive system. Without them, you can’t chew food properly. Chewing helps release saliva, which together with the grinding action of your teeth, breaks up the fibers in food to make it easily digestible.

You may have heard people say, “Don’t gobble your food; chew it properly or you’ll be sick.” There’s some truth in this. If you eat food too quickly, you’re more likely to have indigestion or even vomit. Eating is a key requirement for survival, so you need good teeth to live a long, healthy life.

What Causes Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay (the technical term is "dental caries") is caused by a few very specific bacteria. It’s normal for a healthy mouth to have thousands of “good” types bacteria in it. You won’t make your mouth into a sterile cavity, but you do need to act to prevent the “bad” bacteria harming your teeth. These include some Streptococcus and Lactobacillus species.

The “bad” bacteria make acid from food sugars left on the surface of your teeth after you have eaten. The acid erodes the hard enamel surface of your teeth. Underneath the protective enamel is soft dentin and sensitive nerve endings which together form your tooth structure. Once the enamel is broken, cavities form and other bacteria can enter the tooth and attack and destroy the nerve roots leading to painful toothache.

If the cavities are small they can be filled by your dentist with amalgam or a propriety white dental filler. This action will reseal the enamel coating and prevent further tooth decay. A regular dental check-up is essential to spot these small cavities and limit the damage done by bad bacteria. If left unchecked, small cavities will lead to nerve root damage with the eventual loss of the tooth.

Diagrammatic Cross Section of a Tooth

Diagrammatic cross-section of a tooth showing how cavities damage the protective enamel.
Diagrammatic cross-section of a tooth showing how cavities damage the protective enamel. | Source

Do you visit your dentist regularly?

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What are Cavities?

US and UK Dental Caries (Tooth Decay) in Adults

The cost of regular dental care is too expensive for many people and it means they have to do without. In some countries there are limited health programs that cover some people on low incomes, but for most either they or their employer must pay if they want treatment.

The figures below show the shocking cost to the population in two of the wealthiest nations in the world (US and UK) where most people are responsible for paying for their own oral health care.

US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999–2004

  • 92% of adults have had dental caries in their permanent teeth.
  • 26% of adults have untreated decay.
  • Adults have an average of 3.28 decayed or missing permanent teeth.

Oral Health Foundation UK 2016

  • Over four-fifths of the population has at least one filling.
  • On average each adult has seven fillings.
  • 74% of all adults have had to have a tooth extracted.
  • 29% of the population experiences regular dental pain.

The Agony of Tooth Extraction Without Anesthetic

Vintage poster showing the agony of having a tooth extraction without anesthetic.
Vintage poster showing the agony of having a tooth extraction without anesthetic. | Source

The American Dental Association's (ADA) Recommendations

Top Tips For Preventing Tooth Decay
1. Brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste.
2. Clean between your teeth daily with floss or interdental cleaner.
3. Eat nutritious and balanced meals and limit snacking.
4. Check with your dentist about the use of supplemental fluoride, which strengthens your teeth.
5. Visit your dentist regularly for professional cleanings and oral examination.

Electric Toothbrush v Manual Toothbrush

I used a manual toothbrush for years. I used to think an electric toothbrush was an expensive indulgence, the kind of thing you bought for the person who has everything. But I changed my mind about 10 years ago, after being given a temporary free trial of one by my dental hygienist.

I noticed the difference immediately. My teeth felt very smooth and clean; just like they’d been freshly cleaned by a professional scale and polish. As the months went by, my hygienist encouraged me and showed me how to reach every part of my teeth and gums. As I became more proficient and purchased my own electric toothbrush, my dentist started to praise the condition of my teeth. Whereas before I used to need a filling every couple of years or so, I haven’t needed one at all since switching to the electric brush.

I use an Oral-B Pro 1000 rechargeable electric toothbrush. There are more expensive versions available, but I find this starter model is excellent and keeps my teeth clean and healthy. The small head can get into all the nooks and crannies around your teeth and the brush-head moves three times faster than you could brush using a manual toothbrush.

A Selection of Electric Toothbrush Heads


Foods that Help Prevent Dental Caries

1. Sugar-free Gum

All foods, if left on your teeth, have the potential to cause tooth decay. The key is to brush your teeth after every meal to ensure all sugars are removed. One of the worst culprits is snacking between meals. Each time you eat a sugary snack, the bad bacteria use the carbohydrate film on your teeth to make acid for the next 20 minutes. Chewing sugar-free gum can help alleviate this problem. They help stimulate saliva which helps to wash more of the sugar off your teeth and be swallowed.

2. Dairy Foods and Leafy Greens

You probably already know that calcium is good for children and their growing bones. It’s also good for both adults and children to help maintain strong and healthy teeth. Calcium can be found in dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese. Leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage are also good sources of calcium. Other options include Brazil nuts, almonds and canned fish with bones.

3. High-Fiber Foods, Fruit and Vegetables

Eating five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day is good for your general health and well-being. Good dental health is another reason to have plenty of these high-fiber foods in your diet.

Producing salvia has been mentioned a few times in this article as it is an essential part of keeping sugar deposits off your teeth and gums. Eating high-fiber foods keeps your saliva flowing around your mouth which helps defend against tooth decay. All fresh fruit and vegetables as well as dried fruit are good sources of fiber.

4. Whole Grains

Whole grains deserve a special mention because not only are they high in fiber, but they also provide B vitamins, iron and magnesium; all essential minerals for oral health. Whole grain foods such as brown rice and whole-grain cereals and pasta can easily be added to your diet. Use them instead of more refined versions and your teeth will benefit as a result of the improved nutritional input.

Happiness is Good Dental Hygiene

Children should be taught to take care of their teeth from an early age.
Children should be taught to take care of their teeth from an early age. | Source

Sources of Further Information

More information about maintaining good dental health can be found bu contacting the following organizations.

The American Dental Association

The UK National Health Service (NHS)


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