Are You at Risk?

Monday May 24, 2021

Last week I introduced you to a patient who has been struggling with dental decay (cavities), gum recession, and dental erosion (the chemical breakdown of tooth structure). I discussed how these dental problems are complex multifactorial diseases of epidemic levels affecting both children and adults.

I ended with the idea that a healthy mouth requires more than brushing, flossing, and “fillings”. With current scientific evidence and new technologies, patients and practitioners need to begin to look at these problems not just from a drilling and filling approach, but also from a medical (preventive/therapeutic) approach. If “we” continue to think the same way about dental issues, we will continue to have the same struggles and same results.

There are over 19,000 different bacteria that have been found in mouths and every person has about 1,000 different types. Not all of them cause decay, but many of them have also been found to grow on artery walls. The medical/dental systemic connection is real and we must pay more attention to it. 

Dental decay is on the rise. Why the increase? Most of it has to do with dietary trends. We snack more, eat more sugar/carbs, drink more soda, have more gastric reflux, take more mouth-drying medications, etc. Dental caries (decay) is a pH specific disease. The right bacteria, plus sugar, create acid which breaks down the enamel of the teeth. Add an already acidic environment and it is even worse. In most cases it is a preventable disease. The problem is that changing our thinking and behavior, the nemesis of all that is bad, is difficult to do unless there is an awakening among us. 

It is time for the dental professional to take a different approach when treating this disease. More focus needs to be shifted to prevention of decay rather just treating it. Filling teeth is treating the result of the disease but does nothing to prevent it. The dentist needs to take a more active role in assessing individual’s risk factors. In the dental world one way to do this is to use CAMBRA, which stands for Caries Management By Risk Assessment.

Based on assessing an individual’s risk factors such as quality of home care, quality of salivary flow, medication and dietary issues, a caries-preventive strategy can be established. Dentists must take some responsibility and be open to a different management of this disease. They must also be able to motivate people to change habits. The bottom line is that if you want to be decay-free, you can be. 

For those at high risk, specific behavioral modifications are almost always necessary. To become aware of these often requires an assessment by your doctor. Doctors need to shift time away from treating things to be able to assess more and discuss the specific behavior modifications necessary for each individual patient. The patient needs to be receptive to hear and act on these changes. 

There are also some great products currently available and others on the horizon. Everything from new toothpastes and gels with ions in them to rebuild tooth structure, sprays to neutralize pH, and probiotics are on their way. Right now you can use things like the sweetener replacement Xylitol, which by itself is cavity-fighting, but also works synergistically with fluoride. Prescription level toothpastes are also available and there is strong research for the topical application of fluoride varnish, the same stuff the kids get, for adults. 

The evidence is very clear – this is a preventable disease. Next time you go to the dentist and find out you have a new cavity, stop blaming the dentist or yourself, and ask to get a specific protocol for prevention of this disease based on your specific risk factors.

Dr. St. Clair maintains a private dental practice in Rowley and Newburyport dedicated to health-centered family dentistry. He has a special interest in treating sleep apnea and TMJ problems. If there are certain topics you would like to see written about or questions you have please email them to him at

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