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Everyone has heard of (if not had) cavities, but not many people know the true culprit in the development of tooth decay.

There are many types of bacteria, both good and bad, that are always present in your mouth. Streptococcus mutans (also known as “S. mutans”) is the main contributor to decay and the breaking down of your tooth enamel, and is found on most tooth surfaces – especially the difficult areas to clean like pits and fissures. Because caries, best known as dental cavities, are the most common chronic disease in children and adolescents, understanding the science behind the causes will help your family prevent them.

The Germ Behind It

Streptococcus mutans is one bacteria associated with tooth decay, according to Britannica, and can build up on the surfaces of the teeth at any age – from infancy, before baby teeth erupt, to those who’ve had their adult teeth for decades. The key to preventing the resulting cavities is to effectively control the environment where the bacteria lives – which can include the gumline in decay’s later stages – and to remove or disrupt the bacterial plaque that accumulates on a regular basis. It sounds simple, but caries remain a largely misunderstood disease despite their prevalence.

Trouble for Children

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of tooth decay is its effect on kids. Early childhood caries (ECC) are identified as one or more missing, decayed or filled teeth in children from birth up to six years of age. This can account for unnecessary pain and distress for a child, ultimately affecting their overall health and well-being. ECC is actually the most prevalent chronic disease in children – more common than asthma. The American Dental Association (ADA) observes this problem across the country, with the lower socioeconomic areas being the most at risk.

Recognizing that dental decay is a major public health issue, be sure to moderate the foods that feed S. mutans the most (sugar is the main cause), as well as stay current with the proven and emerging methods of prevention within your oral care routine.

How It Affects Adults

Adults can develop cavities just the same, even after an adolescence or young adulthood of being cavity-free. Why? With aging comes changes that can contribute to dry mouth and exposed root surfaces. The former is mostly seen in patients who take several prescription medications, and most adults have some gum recession exposing the softer root, which is more susceptible to decay. Understanding the contributing factors – and having regular checks and assessments by your dentist or dental hygienist – will aid you in prevention.

Controlling (and Preventing) the Bad Bacteria

Cavities come from the breakdown of tooth enamel caused by bacteria like S. mutans, and its interaction with the food and drinks in your diet. The bad bacteria combine with some foods – especially sugars and complex carbohydrates – to form an acid that does the actual damage against your enamel. Because the film that develops on the teeth is chronic and constantly occurring, disturbing the germ-rich plaque film needs to be done regularly.

Of course, avoiding food and drinks that are high in sugar lessens the bacteria’s ability to form tooth-destroying acids. For most people, doing the following will reduce the risk:

  • Brush twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste like Colgate TotalSF Clean Mint
  • Floss every day to clean in between teeth, where S. mutans can spread beyond a brush’s normal reach
  • Eat nutritious meals and limit the most convenient snacks
  • Keep up with your regular dental checkups
  • Consider pit and fissure sealants if necessary

These proven approaches are crucial and will help reduce the decay rate for most people. Some individuals exhibit a higher amount of cavities, though, and new assessments and products can help control the bacteria as well as treat and remineralize early lesions before they progress. Keep in mind you may need more frequent dental visits and X-rays, saliva testing and rinses (or supplements) to address a higher risk.

Fighting streptococcus mutans is a constant battle, but your dental professionals are uniquely qualified to provide the tools needed to fight it. Seeking regular care will identify your risks, and help you rest assured that your dentist can provide treatment along with a recommended home care regimen. Controlling the bad bacteria requires diligence – from diet to healthy habits – and the most important person in the process is you.