From a very young age, your dentist will remind you that proper teeth health begins with regular brushing and flossing. Unfortunately, despite your best intentions, chances are good you’ll develop a cavity at some point in your life. According to the CDC, 90% of adults age 20 and over have had at least one cavity.
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Tooth decay isn’t the end of the world, but it’s something you need to have taken care of without delay with your dentist. Maisie Tolzmann, DDS, explains the best ways to keep your teeth in tip-top shape, and why home remedies for cavities don’t exist.
What are cavities?
Carbohydrates are the main culprit when you develop a dental cavity. “Bacteria present in your mouth eat carbohydrates, or sugars, and excrete an acid,” Dr. Tolzmann says. “That acid breaks down your tooth structure and creates a hole or a cavity.”
You can think of a dental cavity’s progression almost like Pac-Man munching on power pellets. “The more that bacteria eat sugars and carbohydrates, the more they break down your tooth as it’s secreting the acid,” says Dr. Tolzmann. “The bigger the cavity gets, the more likely you are to need a filling. If the cavity approaches the pulp chamber, root canal therapy may be needed.”
What are the signs of a cavity?
Tooth cavities have a few tell-tale signs. You might develop a sensitivity to temperature, like hot or cold foods, or feel discomfort when you eat sweets. “If you’re eating something sweet, and you kind of get this zinger-type pain in a tooth, that’s a sign you have a dental cavity in it,” Dr. Tolzmann says.
Younger children tend to get more cavities, as they don’t brush their teeth as often and aren’t as adept at brushing protocol. People that eat more starchy foods are also more susceptible to dental cavities, as are people on medication that might cause dry mouth as a side effect.
Can you get rid of a cavity at home?
The short answer is: No, removing a cavity at home isn’t recommended. In fact, it’s not even possible, especially if the decay has advanced past the hard, outer enamel shell of the tooth into the softer dentin below.
“If you have a dental cavity that is large enough that it’s extending into the dentin, the inner surface of the tooth, you can’t get rid of that,” says Dr. Tolzmann. “The cavity progresses faster in that tooth surface. You want to be a little bit more aggressive about treating it.”
However, Dr. Tolzmann says if a cavity is “small and barely into the enamel on your tooth” — something known as a “watch” or what dentists call incipient caries — you can take steps to prevent it from getting bigger. “If it’s in between your teeth, dentists will recommend you keep up with your flossing, brush with toothpaste that has fluoride in it, and potentially use a mouth rinse with fluoride in it to strengthen the enamel and prevent that cavity from getting larger,” she explains. “But once the cavity is bigger than a watch-type lesion, it’s harder to maintain it at that size. It’s likely going to progress with time.”
For older adults that have a lot of dental cavities, especially around their crowns or little kids who have baby teeth due to fall out soon, Dr. Tolzmann says dentists occasionally use silver diamine fluoride (SDF). “It arrests the cavity,” she says. “The downside of this is that it turns a tooth really black, and so it’s not very aesthetically pleasing. That’s why we reserve it for certain use because not everybody wants to walk around with a huge black mark on their tooth. It’s also not great for a big cavity, because we can’t get fully into the space, especially between teeth.”
Debunked methods of removing a cavity
Peruse the internet and you’ll find plenty of people that claim they know how to get rid of a cavity at home. Unfortunately, Dr. Tolzmann says the methods they suggest don’t work.
Although Dr. Tolzmann says oil pulling — or swishing coconut oil around in your mouth — isn’t harmful, you won’t get cavity relief from it. “It’s not going to be beneficial,” she says. “A cavity is a hole in your tooth. You can’t fill that by swishing coconut oil or using a DIY method you find on the internet.”
Taking supplemental vitamin D
When you’re a kid, getting proper amounts of calcium and vitamin D is key to keeping your bones strong and growing. As an adult, taking supplemental vitamins won’t necessarily help your teeth. “While your tooth is like a bone, it’s not the exact same makeup as a bone,” Dr. Tolzmann says. “Plus, your teeth develop when you’re really young. As an adult, they’re fully formed. They’re not going to grow or develop anymore. It’s not something that systemically would benefit you.”
Sugar-free gum won’t help you get rid of a cavity, but it does provide other benefits — including keeping you away from snacking and carbs, Dr. Tolzmann says. “If you’re a person that snacks and you need to have something in your mouth, sugar-free gum is a good alternative because you won’t have any carbohydrates and sugars in your mouth.”
How do you prevent cavities?
In addition to daily brushing and flossing, Dr. Tolzmann offers these tips for healthier teeth.
Try not to snack as often
“When we have a patient that has a lot of dental cavities, we talk about the frequency of their meals,” she says. “So if someone eats a snack several times a day, and those snacks are potato chips or pretzels, those are still carbohydrates that the bacteria will consume, and create more cavities with, unfortunately.” Stick to three meals a day, and try to limit snacks.
Brush your teeth after snacking
If you do tend to have an afternoon snack, make sure to brush your teeth very soon after you’re done. “What you want to do is get rid of the food source for bacteria to consume,” Dr. Tolzmann says. “You want to return your mouth to a neutral pH, rather than an acidic pH, which the bacteria thrive in and produce more acid.”
Chew sugar-free gum
In addition to preventing you from snacking, sugar-free gum stimulates your saliva flow. “Saliva protects your teeth from dental cavities forming,” Dr. Tolzmann says. “It has a more neutral pH, and cavity-producing bacteria are more active in an acidic environment.”
Don’t just rely on mouthwash for cleaning your teeth
Swishing some mouthwash around in your mouth and calling it a day isn’t a foolproof way to prevent cavities. Instead, you need to make sure to remove all of the food and any plaque that’s built up between your teeth. “I always say, if you forget your toothbrush somewhere, and you don’t have it with you, it’s best to take a washcloth and brush your teeth than it is to swish something,” Dr. Tolzmann says. “You want to clean food off of your teeth rather than just kind of swish something around and leave the build-up on there.”
Make sure to see a dentist regularly
If you sense you may be developing a cavity, it’s better to see a dentist sooner rather than later. Letting cavities progress could lead to bigger problems down the line.
“It may get to the point where one day you have so much pain that you’re not sleeping at night, and it’s radiating throughout your jaw,” Dr. Tolzmann says. “And then likely this cavity has reached the pulp of the tooth, where the nerve and the blood supply is. It’s very painful. And usually, that’s when a dentist gets a phone call and needs to be seen right away to either have a root canal done or have the tooth extracted.”