Anatomy of a Cavity

PHOTO: Taking care of your mouth can brighten your smile and make you healthier.

Maybe you're one of those people who think skipping your pre-bedtime toothbrushing routine now and then can, at worst, lead to a short lecture from your dentist. Think again.

Turns out, poor oral health can be connected to a higher risk for heart and lung disease, diabetes, and -- if you're a woman -- having premature babies with low birth weight. Not convinced? A recent study published by the British Medical Journal determined that participants who reported brushing their teeth less frequently had a 70 percent increased risk for heart disease compared with those who brushed twice daily.

Tooth decay, an obvious sign of poor oral health, is one of the most common health issues -- second only to the common cold. In fact, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, approximately 92 percent of adults in the United States from ages 20 to 64 have had cavities in their permanent teeth. Knowing just what the heck a cavity is and how to treat or prevent one can go far in helping keep your smile (and your heart) healthy.

What Is a Cavity?

The term cavity is synonymous with the word hole, which is what develops in a tooth that's not kept clean. Think of a cavity's genesis as a team effort, with you (specifically, your oral hygiene habits) in the starting lineup. Bacteria in the mouth converts food -- especially carbohydrates -- that you didn't brush, rinse, or floss away into acid. The acid and bacteria join forces with the remaining food and saliva to form plaque, a sticky substance that, if not ejected from the playing field of your teeth, will kick off the process of tooth decay. (If not removed, plaque can start to build up within 20 minutes of eating). Acids in the plaque dissolve your teeth's protective coating of enamel, creating holes -- or cavities.

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