What causes dental and oral disease?

Neglecting your dental and oral health, diet, personal habits and tobacco are the main causes of mouth, tooth, and gum problems.

Cavities and Gum Disease
Bacteria constantly multiply on your teeth. When bacteria build up, they form a sticky, colorless substance called plaque. The main cause of decay and gum disease is plaque. Bacteria produce acids, which destroy tooth enamel, the hard outer covering of the tooth. This leads to decay. When plaque is not removed by brushing and flossing, it hardens and is called tartar or calculus. Tartar can be removed only by a dentist.

Certain foods contribute to plaque formation. When bacteria in the mouth combine with foods that have sugar or starch, plaque forms. A diet high in sugar and starch will eventually result in tooth decay. Soft drinks are a major source of added sugar in the diet. Some soft drinks contain as much as 11 teaspoons of sugar per serving. They also contain acids that can damage teeth by eroding tooth surfaces.

Using tobacco also increases the risk of developing gum disease. Smoking and chewing tobacco contributes to plaque and tartar buildup, as well as oral cancer.

Not getting enough fluoride can also promote tooth decay. Fluoride is a substance found in nature that strengthens teeth and helps prevent tooth decay. Most water systems contain some fluoride. In South Carolina, 91% of the water systems contain fluoride. However, if you live in an area where fluoride is not in the water, you may be more susceptible to cavities.

Abscessed Tooth
When tooth pulp is diseased or injured and can't repair itself, it dies. The most common cause of pulp death is a cracked tooth or a deep cavity. Both of these problems can let bacteria enter the pulp, and bacteria can cause an infection inside the tooth. This infection can cause an abscess.

Injured Teeth
Cracked or broken teeth can be caused by personal habits such as biting pens or chewing hard items like ice or popcorn kernels. Using your teeth as a tool can damage the enamel on a tooth or crack the tooth itself. This can also damage fillings and other dental work you may have had done.

Grinding your teeth (bruxism) can cause cracked teeth, especially where there are already fillings.

Accidents are a major cause of injury to teeth. To save a tooth that has been knocked out, rinse it off and place it in a cup of milk or in the accident victim's saliva. Take it with the accident victim to a dentist immediately. If a dentist is seen within an hour of the accident, chances are good that the tooth can be re-implanted and saved.

Dry Mouth
Using tobacco, alcohol or drugs can cause dry mouth. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs can also cause dry mouth. Common drugs that cause dry mouth are antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers and diuretics. Sometimes dry mouth is caused by salivary glands not working well. This can be a result of certain diseases, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or nerve damage.

Canker Sores
Doctors don't know what causes canker sores. Although the sores are not contagious, they can run in families. That means if your parents or siblings get canker sores, the genes you share with them make it more likely that you'll develop the sores, too.

Doctors have also noticed that people tend to get canker sores during stressful times of their lives. Twice as many women as men get canker sores. This may be due to hormonal differences. Doctors also believe that some dietary deficiencies, such as low iron or vitamin B12 may contribute to the development of canker sores.

Cold Sores
Cold sores are caused by a virus called herpes virus type 1. You can catch the virus from other people through contact, such as kissing or sharing a glass. The initial infection may not cause a cold sore to form. The only symptoms may be flu or cold-like symptoms such as aches and fever. Once you have the virus, you are likely to develop cold sores after running a fever, getting sunburned, eating certain foods, or during a time of emotional stress.

Teeth Grinding or Bruxism
Sometimes people grind their teeth without even realizing it. Doctors believe that people tend to grind or clench their teeth when under stress. Another contributing factor can be irregular biting surfaces of the teeth (abnormal bite). Teeth grinding can also be caused by a sleep disorder, a neuromuscular disease, certain medications, drug abuse, alcohol or caffeine.

Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) occur when the jaw joints and teethare not lined up properly. They can be caused by injuries such as falls or car accidents, which cause misalignment of the joints of the jaw. Bruxism and jaw clenching can also cause TMD and are often due to chronic stress and tension.

Oral Cancer
Two known causes of oral cancer are tobacco and alcohol use. Eighty to 90 percent of oral cancers come from smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; chewing tobacco; or dipping snuff. Smokeless tobacco users are at particular risk of developing oral cancer. The longer you use tobacco, the greater your risk of developing cancer. Pipe smokers are especially prone to cancer of the lip. When you stop using tobacco, you can greatly reduce your risk of oral cancer.

Anything which chronically irritates the inside of your cheeks, tongue and gums, such as ill fitting dentures, can cause a precancerous condition, called leukoplakia.

Persistent and heavy drinking of alcohol also increases the risk of oral cancer, even for people who do not use tobacco. However, people who use both alcohol and tobacco have an especially high risk of getting oral cancer.

Exposure to the sun without using a lotion or lip balm that contains sunscreen can cause cancer of the lip.

It is important to see your dentist on a regular basis to check for signs of oral cancer.

To learn more:

Oral Health Topics
(American Dental Association)
An online directory that explains a wide range of oral and dental health issues.
Head and Neck Cancer Home Page
(National Cancer Institute)
Learn about risk factors, detection, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of head and neck cancers.

next » What are the symptoms of dental and oral disease?

Written by: Judi Berry, B.F.A.
Reviewed by: Michael J. Engel, D.M.D.
Last Modified: Monday February 29, 2016 11:43 AM