Myths and Facts About Cavities

Protect your teeth with the facts.

Only one of the following is true. Do you know which?

To separate dental health myth from fact, WebMD talked with Kimberly A. Harms, DDS, an American Dental Association consumer advisor and past president of the Minnesota Dental Association. Check the myths and facts below to find out how cavities are caused, prevented, and treated.

1. Sugar Is the Prime Cause of Cavities

Myth and fact. In reality, it’s the acid produced by bacteria in your mouth that causes cavities, says Harms. What the bacteria do, however, is eat carbohydrates -- and sugar is one of them. Rice, potatoes, bread, and fruits and vegetables are also carbohydrates.

When you eat anything with carbs, the bacteria become active and produce acid that then eats into your tooth.

“Once they do that, the bacteria now have a nice little hole to live in where your toothbrush and floss can’t reach,” Harms says. The bacteria continue to metabolize carbs, produce acids, and your cavity just keeps getting bigger.

Also, it’s not the amount of carbohydrates you eat that causes tooth decay, but the length of time your teeth are exposed. If you eat a lot of carbs for lunch, that’s one big exposure. But if you spend the day sipping sugary drinks, that’s continuous exposure -- and much more dangerous for your teeth.

“We have a saying,” Harms tells WebMD. “’Sip all day and get decay.’”

2. Exposure to Acidic Foods Like Lemons Causes Tooth Decay

Fact. Acidic foods such as lemons, citrus juices, or soft drinks don’t cause cavities, but they may be putting your enamel in danger.

“Acids can cause erosion of the tooth-protecting enamel,” says Harms, “weakening the tooth. If you lose the enamel's protection and expose the underlying dentin, your tooth is now more prone to decay.”

3. Kids Are a Lot More Likely to Get Cavities Than Adults

Myth. With the help of sealants, fluoridated water, and preventative care, “we’ve actually cut decay in school-aged children by half in the last 20 years,” says Harms.

However, there’s been an increase in cavities in senior citizens “because they have some unique circumstances,” according to Harms. Some medications dry out the mouth, for example, reducing salvia. Saliva is vital in fighting tooth decay because it helps neutralize acids, has a disinfectant quality, washes away bacteria, and helps prevent food from sticking to your teeth.

4. Aspirin Placed Next to a Tooth Will Help a Toothache

Myth. Swallowing aspirin is what helps reduce toothache pain. Since aspirin is acidic, placing it beside the tooth can actually burn your gum tissue, causing an abscess. ”So don’t do it,” says Harms. "Always swallow the aspirin!"

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