Dental caries, and the bacteria that cause them, destroy teeth, smiles, and lives. Caries risk isn’t just about cosmetic damage to teeth either; caries can lead to cardiovascular complications, feeding problems, diabetes, and even dementia. If you know your dental caries risk factors, you can take steps to care for your teeth and improve your oral and whole-body health.
For a quick screen, try our caries risk quiz. Here are six other ways to measure and think about risk for dental cavities:
1. Family History
Diseases run in families. This is especially true for caries risk, especially when you look at mothers, primary caregivers, and siblings. There are two different ways that family can influence your caries risk.
There’s genetics—some people are born with less saliva or funny-shaped teeth—and there’s environment. Babies are born without disease-causing oral bacteria. We get our oral bacteria cultures from our parents and siblings when we share food, drinks, and utensils. If your family members have caries-causing bacteria, they may have passed them on to you, and you may be at greater risk for caries.
You can’t change your history, but if you communicate your family history to your dentist, the two of you can work out interventions to protect your oral health.
2. Fluoride Exposure Before and After Birth
Fluoride is essential for healthy teeth. While most municipalities fluoridate their drinking water, some don’t. Because your teeth form before you’re born, if your mother didn’t have fluoridated water or a supplement while she was pregnant, you may be at a higher risk for caries. If you spent your childhood without fluoridated water or fluoride pills or haven’t received treatments at the dentist or used toothpaste with fluoride, your teeth are at greater risk for damage from bacteria.
It’s not too late. You can make sure you get fluoride now, and you can talk to your dentist about rinses to help strengthen the enamel of your teeth.
3. Sugary Drink Consumption
The bacteria that cause caries feed on sugar. When you drink sugary drinks, you feed the bacteria and they reproduce. They cling to your teeth (that’s plaque) and produce acid that eats away at the enamel of your teeth. Once this protective layer is breached, they can infect the inside of your teeth and cause major problems.
Sugary drinks cause the greatest issues when you drink a lot of them and drink them between meals. Juice, soda, sweetened coffee drinks, and sweet tea all cause problems. If you’re a sweet beverage drinker and also have a family history of cavities, it’s very important to cut back or switch to non-sugary alternatives.
4. Medical History
Your overall medical history has big effects on your mouth. For instance, if you’ve undergone chemotherapy, your teeth may be weaker and at more risk for dental caries. Certain medications can increase your risk by drying up the saliva in your mouth. When you have a dry mouth, the acid from bacteria can do more damage to your teeth. When you have enough saliva, it can neutralize the acids from the bacterial plaque before they eat away at your enamel. A history of drug abuse also correlates with an increased risk of caries, and certain disabilities affect the ability to clean teeth at home and can lead to more plaque and more damage to teeth.
If your medical history puts your teeth at risk, you can talk to your dentist about extra interventions at home or extra hygiene appointments to protect your smile.
5. The Shape of Your Teeth
Morphology—that is, the shape of your teeth—can affect your caries risk. This can be their natural shape or changes you have made to them. Teeth that overlap or have deep grooves are more at risk for caries because there are more places where it is both easy for bacteria to attach and harder to clean them off. Orthodontics can lead to caries if the bacteria settle between the appliance and the enamel of the tooth. Some restorations may lead to caries, especially as they begin to wear out.
Knowing what physical facts about your teeth put you at risk for caries can help you develop an oral care routine that focuses on problem areas and wards off dental caries signs and symptoms.
6. The Specific Species and Population Levels of Your Oral Microbes
Unless you have lab equipment at home, you can’t measure this yourself, but you can ask your dentist to check your oral bacteria, especially if you have a history of dental caries. There are many tools on the market. For instance, some dentists use the Cariscreen Testing Meter for a painless chair-side test that gives an instant measurement.
Once you know your bacteria levels, you and your dentist can discuss interventions to change your oral ecosystem and to set you up for dental success. For instance, you can reduce populations of caries-forming bacteria, neutralize the impact of their acid, and encourage remineralization with a specially formulated CariFree rinse.
Knowledge is power. When you know your risk profile for dental caries, you can change your habits and change your health.