New and expectant parents often wonder about how to set their child on track for a healthy life. One of the questions we encounter is: “will my child be as cavity-prone as I am?”
So are cavities really contagious?
It is true that parents with a history of cavities would be more likely to have children with the same tendency toward tooth decay… but what role do genes play in determining your child’s dental future, and how much is actually the result of environment?
Before we answer this question, first it might help to know a bit about how cavities (also known as dental caries) are formed.
Dental caries – commonly known as cavities – are the result of acid erosion caused by bacteria in the mouth. The most common cavity-causing bacteria are collectively known as Mutans streptococci (try saying that five times fast… we’ll just call them MS from here on out).
When you eat sugary foods or drink sugary beverages, MS thrive on all the extra sugar in your mouth. The more sugar there is, and the more frequently you consume sugary foods and beverages, the more they multiply. As the MS multiply they start producing acid as a waste product of eating all that sugar. The acid eats through the protective enamel of your teeth and the MS bacteria move in, creating dark, painful lesions on the teeth.
But here’s the kicker: you aren’t necessarily born with MS in your mouth! While a “natural”, healthy human mouth contains many strains of bacteria, MS may or may not be present. And even if MS is present, whether it rises to dominance in your mouth to the point of eating holes in your teeth really depends on the environment you provide.
So back to it – am I putting my kids at risk of tooth decay? Or is it all in my genes?
As strange as it sounds, cavities really are contagious.
Genetics will determine your SUSCEPTIBILITY to cavities, but genetics won’t CAUSE cavities. The cause of cavities can be reduced to two factors: (1) exposure to MS bacteria and (2) how much sugar you feed the MS bacteria once you are exposed to them.
Good genetics can put up a good fight against these two factors, but over time even the best genes will lose out to wave after wave of sugared-up, well fed MS that go uncontrolled in the mouth for extended periods of time.
The first step parents-to-be can take is to delay their child’s exposure to MS for as long as possible. This includes getting their own dental hygiene in order, such as getting regular cleanings and having any existing cavities filled.
Expectant moms with poor dental health can actually give cavity-causing bacteria to their child in-utero, which places that child at a dental disadvantage right from the start. Mom-to-be should ideally get cavities filled prior to becoming pregnant; once pregnant, cleanings are allowed after the first trimester but we advise against treatment such as fillings until the baby is born.
It is best for mom and dad to both establish good dental hygiene, since sharing saliva can also be a cause of transferring MS bacteria to their child.
While MS exposure is inevitable–eventually your child will be exposed to this bacteria–delaying and minimizing the exposure for as long as possible will set your baby up for long-term dental health.
Once exposed to MS, the key is keeping the bacteria under control. This is where genetics come into play. Some people will easily be able to keep MS and caries at bay, while others will have to battle constantly to keep the MS under control.
We advise you to limit your intake of refined sugars, and when you do consume sugary foods or drinks be sure to rinse out your mouth with water for 30 seconds, or better still swish for 30-60 seconds with a xylitol mouthwash. Include flossing in your oral care routine at home. And be sure to bring the whole family in for regular visits with your dentist and hygienist for cleanings and checkups to stay on track. Your dentist and hygienist will help you assess your current risk of cavities, and will help you and your family develop a plan for success.
The Complete Dental Health Team
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