Why Cavities Are Not Just a Kid's Problem

December 14, 2018


There are a number of common problems that usually affect children but not adults. It may come as a surprise to learn that cavities are not one of them. Many people believe that dental caries (aka cavities) is something kids need to worry about, but that adults “outgrow” this disease.

But, that’s not true. And, it can lead to a false sense of security for adults and, especially, seniors.

Why do some people think cavities only affect children?

According to the most recent statistics, at least 60 percent of children have had cavities by five years of age.” Combine that with the commonly quoted (and accurate) statement that “dental caries is the most common infectious disease in children,” and it’s easy to understand why many consider it a kid’s problem.

It is, without a doubt, a problem for children. And, these are the two main reasons why:

  1. Most children love candy, soda, and all the other foods and drinks that are most harmful to their teeth. And, they tend to dislike many of the foods that improve oral health.

  2. At the same time, many children (especially once they’ve gained a little independence,) struggle to maintain good oral health habits like adequate brushing and flossing.

So, it only makes sense that children would struggle with tooth decay.

But, what many people don’t realize is that dental caries is also the most common chronic condition in adults.

Why adults need to be concerned about cavities too

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research reports the following:

  • 92% of adults aged 20 to 64 have had dental caries in their permanent teeth.

  • 26% of adults aged 20 to 64 have untreated decay.

  • Adults aged 20 to 64 have an average of 3.28 decayed or missing permanent teeth and 13.65 decayed and missing permanent surfaces.

Using all the same methods, the Institute found that just 42 percent of children aged 2-11 had experienced cavities, and 59 percent of those aged 12-19. A final sobering statistic from that study indicates that 93 percent of adults over the age of 65 have had cavities. So, clearly, tooth decay isn’t a disease that’s limited by age.

Really, anyone with teeth can potentially fall victim to cavities. And, as we get older, some factors increase our chances of developing these painful pits in the surface of our teeth:

  • Dry mouth (xerostomia) - A number of health conditions include dry mouth as a symptom, but the most common cause is the use of prescription medications, many of which can cause dry mouth as a side effect. Saliva is the mouth’s built-in cleaner and keeping the mouth adequately hydrated helps cut down on bacteria’s opportunities to soften the enamel enough to cause cavities.

  • Receding gums - As we get older, it’s common for our gums to recede. Every micron of uncovered tooth provides additional opportunities for plaque and tartar to build up, which can lead to cavities.

  • Stress - Doctors continue to uncover new and frightening ways in which mental and emotional stress impact us physically. Regarding cavities, stress can inhibit immune response, increase inflammation, and cause us to grind our teeth, all of which weakens the integrity of the enamel. Additionally, stress often makes us crave foods that aren’t tooth-friendly. The fact is, adults are far more prone to chronic stress than children are.

  • Heartburn, GERD, and reflux - Any condition that causes stomach acids to regularly come in contact with the teeth can skyrocket the chances of cavities forming. These can be stress-related, or standalone conditions, but they’re far more common in adults.

  • Time - Frankly, the longer you have your teeth, the higher the chance you’ll get a cavity. To a limited extent, genetics plays a part, and it’s really just a matter of time.

What should adults do to treat dental caries?

If you diagnose your own cavity, you’ve let it go far too long.

Generally, a cavity can be diagnosed by a dentist via visual examination months or more than a year before you notice any pain or sensitivity related to the decay. So, it’s vitally important for everyone to keep up with regular cleanings and examinations every six months. With early detection, treatment can be quick, painless, and inexpensive.

Of course, the best way to handle cavities is to never get them in the first place.

And what about prevention?

Since cavities are most often caused by the softening effect of acid on the tooth surface, preventing cavities requires controlling how much acid touches the teeth and how long it stays there.

Consuming acidic foods and drinks plays a small role, but the main culprit is bacteria. As certain bacteria feast on the sugary remnants of your last meal, they produce acid. The longer they’re able to stay on your teeth, and the more of them there are, the more likely they will begin to produce plaque which can then harden into tartar. At each stage of this process, the amount of cavity-causing acid that is being collected on the surface of your teeth multiplies.

You know where this is going… To prevent plaque buildup, neutralize the acid, and keep the bacteria population under control, the best thing you can do is brush your teeth twice a day for at least two minutes and floss between your teeth at least once daily.

To summarize, don’t believe the myth that cavities only affect kids. Everyone — from age 2 to 102 — needs to be aware of how cavities form and what can be done to prevent them. And, if treatment becomes necessary, everyone needs to have access to affordable dental care so diagnosis and treatment can be completed quickly and effectively.


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