Dental (tooth) decay is caused by poor toothbrushing routines and frequent snacking on sugary foods throughout the day. Good oral hygiene and regular visits to a dentist or other oral health professional will help maintain healthy teeth and gums. Fluoridated drinking water and toothpastes help reduce dental decay. Wear a mouthguard, helmet or faceguard to prevent injury to the teeth during sport.
Dental (tooth) decay is the most common disease that affects teeth, but it can be prevented. Decay is caused by plaque, a sticky film found on teeth. Bacteria found in plaque change sugars into acids, which produce holes (cavities) in the teeth. Plaque cannot be removed by rinsing.
Brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste or cleaning by a dentist or other oral health professional are the best ways to remove plaque. Fluoridated drinking water and toothpastes have reduced the amount of dental decay in Australia.
Plaque also causes gum disease
Gum disease is caused by plaque, which builds up on the gum line of teeth and causes gums to become inflamed. Eventually, plaque may destroy the fibres and bone that hold teeth in place. Removal of plaque from teeth through regular thorough toothbrushing can help prevent gum disease.
Two things must be present for tooth decay to occur. They are bacteria and sugar. Tooth decay occurs when bacteria in the mouth use sugar to make acid, which leads to a loss of mineral from the teeth.
Many bacteria live in your mouth and on your teeth in the dental plaque. These bacteria need energy to live and use sugars you eat to derive this energy. They produce acid as a waste product, which they pump into your mouth. This acid dissolves the crystals of your teeth, causing progressive mineral loss that leads to signs of tooth decay, such as white spots and cavities.
Fortunately saliva works to prevent this from occurring. It washes sugar out of the mouth into the stomach, can neutralise acid, fights bacteria and can repair the early stages of tooth decay by repairing tooth mineral. Unfortunately, if the amount of acid produced by the bacteria on the teeth outweighs the protective influence of saliva, then tooth decay will occur.
How to prevent tooth decay
Suggestions to protect your teeth include:
- Clean your teeth at least twice a day after meals and use floss.
- Low fluoride toothpaste is best for children under six years of age. Introduce low fluoride toothpaste from approximately 18 months of age.
- Eat a healthy well-balanced diet.
- If you eat sugary foods and snacks, limit their intake – especially between meals.
- Drink plenty of fluoridated water.
- Milk is preferable to sugary drinks. If you do drink acidic and sugary drinks such as soft drinks, sports drinks, cordials and fruit juices, limit how often and how much of these you drink.
Regular dental check-ups are important
Regular dental check-ups (as recommended by your dentist or other oral health professional) help to keep teeth and gums healthy. The Child Health Record recommends children’s teeth should be checked at least twice before they are three and a half years of age. This might be done by a maternal and child health nurse, dental professional or paediatrician.
Dental sealants protect children’s second (adult) teeth from decay. Sealants are applied on newly erupted molars to stop food from collecting on the chewing surfaces of teeth. Not all children need sealants. Ask about these when you see your dental professional.
Protection of teeth and mouth from trauma during sport
Oral trauma can include damage to the teeth, gums, tongue and lips or fractures of the jawbones. Suggestions to limit trauma include:
- Wear a professionally fitted mouthguard when playing and training for sport if there is a risk of dental injury.
- Some sports and recreational activities require a full-faced helmet or face guard.
Other lifestyle issues and teeth
Oral cancers include cancers of the lip, tongue, gums, floor of mouth and other parts of the mouth and throat. Use of tobacco and heavy consumption of alcohol are major risk factors for oral cancers, while sun exposure is an additional risk factor for cancers of the lip. Suggestions to reduce these risks include:
- If you smoke, quit for good.
- Limit your alcohol intake.
- Protect your face from the sun.
- Use a SPF30+ broad spectrum, water – resistant sunscreen
When to see a dental professional
Regular dental check-ups are important. You should also visit a dental professional if you have:
- A toothache – this may be caused by dental decay.
- Bleeding gums – this may be caused by gum disease. Some viral infections can also make gums inflamed.
- Facial swelling – this may be caused by dental decay or wisdom teeth
- Dental trauma – a tooth may be loosened or knocked out. If a permanent tooth is knocked out, wrap it in plastic or place it in milk and seek dental advice immediately. It may be possible to put the tooth back.
Where to get help
- Dentist or other oral health professional
- Community dental clinics Tel. 1300 360 054 to find your local clinic
- The Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne:
- General enquiries or to make an appointment Tel. (03) 9341 1000 or 1800 833 039 (outside Melbourne metro) Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 5 pm.
- Dental emergencies Tel. 1300 360 054 Monday to Friday 8.30 am to 9.15 pm, weekends and public holidays 9 am to 9.15 pm
- Australian Dental Association Tel. (03) 8825 4600
Things to remember
- Clean your teeth at least twice a day after meals and have regular dental check-ups to maintain healthy teeth and gums and to prevent tooth decay.
- Limit sugary foods and drinks, drink plenty of tap water (especially if fluoridated) and enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods.
- If you live in a non-fluoridated area, seek dental professional advice about the use of fluoride toothpaste for children.
- Protect your face and mouth when playing sport.
- Quit smoking and limit your alcohol intake.
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Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: May 2012
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