As a dentist I am jokingly asked this time of year if I will be passing out candy and partaking in the festivities of Hallow’s Eve or giving kids toothbrushes and floss instead. Although I’m not much for costumes and haunted houses I’ve never responded to the yearly request made by children through generations with anything other than a treat, and certainly not with such a trick as a spool of nylon string that amongst a litany of chocolate and sugar will almost certainly find its way into a garbage bin with the empty wrappers.
There’s no way around the fact that an immense amount of sugary, sticky, cavity inducing treats are going to be consumed this evening, so let’s discuss limiting the damage caused by the real monsters of Halloween: bacteria, or more specifically Streptococcus mutans. You see, these bacteria are the only things that have a bigger appetite for sugar than the miniature vampires, superheroes, and princesses running from door to door all evening.
These bacteria stick to the teeth by adhering to a substance called the biofilm that forms through saliva and food particles building up on the surfaces of teeth. Without interruption this biofilm continues to mature and becomes filled with more and more bacteria. Once fully developed the biofilm becomes what is known as plaque or tartar. Upon consumption of sugars, bacteria produce a byproduct called lactic acid. As more acid is produced the enamel starts to break down resulting in what is known as a cavity.
The best way to prevent decay is to eliminate the presence of plaque in the first place and prevent the accumulation of harmful bacteria. This of course is accomplished by brushing twice and flossing once daily. However it is recommended to visit our fantastic hygienists usually twice per year to clean any areas that are missed as well as remove more stubborn areas of hardened plaque (calculus) that can’t be removed with a toothbrush.
As far as halloween treats are concerned it is best to avoid the really sticky stuff. Due to its sticky nature this candy stays on teeth longer and allows cavity causing bugs to feast for hours. Chocolate type candies may be a better bet since they are easier to clean from the pits and grooves on the tops of back teeth. Another thing to be on the lookout for is really hard candy such as jawbreakers that can actually break your teeth if not consumed carefully.
Also, research has shown that chewing gum containing a natural sweetener called xylitol can go a long ways towards preventing decay. Bacteria are able to consume the xylitol sweetener but are unable to digest it and produce the destructive acid. Basically the bacteria become too full on xylitol to ingest the sugar.
Enough with the teeth talk; wishing a fun and safe (and hopefully dry) time of trick or treating for everyone.