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Dental Decay, A Communicable Disease

April 27th, 2011

Dental Decay, A Communicable Disease
We know that dental decay is caused by bacteria in the mouth that are able to form colonies on the  surfaces of teeth.  These bacterial masses are called dental plaque and they may contain the cavity causing bacteria Streptococcus mutans and strains of Lactobacillus.  These bacteria use carbohydrate in the diet and produce acids that break down the structure of enamel and dentin, leading to dental decay.  This one particular bacteria has been shown to be the cause of most decay.
The question then is, where does the bacteria come from?  The mouth is usually a sterile environment at birth, with no bacteria present.  As an adult, we have many different types of bacteria in our mouths, many of them are beneficial, aiding in normal function and keeping disease causing bacteria in check.  This bacterial population, referred to as the “Oral flora” is different for everyone and is generally picked up from exposures as we grow.  As it turns out, we are inoculated with the harmful cavity causing bacteria by a close relative, usually our mother.  That’s right, our moms are generally the primary care giver during the key time that our oral flora is being developed.  This happens during the normal tasting of food, fingers in the parent’s mouth, sharing of utensils and the like and it takes place between the age of 6 months and 3 years.
Once the bacteria is acquired, it will probably be kept for life as part of the oral environment, making that person more prone to tooth decay.  It may be the reason that some people say that their family has always had “Soft teeth”.  They may simply be passing the bacteria on through the generations.  Remember to caution all those who interact with your young child, especially caregivers (Including grandparents) not to share their eating utensils or food that has come into mouth contact.  Like that ice cream cone.
Because the oral flora in adults is pretty resistant to change, inoculation of another adult is less likely.  So the normal sharing between adults is not as critical for disease control .
It has been suggested that parents who have active decay might want to be using xylitol as part of their daily regimen to decrease the amount of Strep mutans in their mouths, decreasing the chance that they will pass it to their young child.
Different strains and combinations of these bacteria, along with natural immunity and salivary components might alter how much disease results from them.  Of course, the other components of decay, namely diet, oral hygiene, and fluoride availability also play a major role.
Remember that the early prevention of inoculation in the first 3 years can be a major factor in giving your child a lifetime of cavity free dental checkups.

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