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Issue 125: Contagious Cavities

You’ve probably seen this—or maybe you have done this yourself. While preparing food for their kids, parents or caregivers will test the child’s food to see that it is cool enough to eat or flavored just right for the child. When the food is to their satisfaction, they feed it to the child. Believe it or not, that’s one of the first ways cavities can be transmitted. 

New York dentist, Dr. Irwin Smigel, says, “Particularly, the easiest way to catch a cavity is when a mother is feeding a child. The mother will taste the food to check the temperature and then continue feeding the child. Immediately, that’s how kids get cavities.”

That’s not the only cavity-passing culprit, though. Kissing can also wreak havoc on the mouth health-wise. Dr. Smigel says he’s also seen many patients—mostly women, but men aren’t exempt—who have clean and healthy mouths, but get cavities after starting a relationship with someone who has cavities, unhealthy gums or hasn’t visited the dentist in some time.

Cavities result primarily from bacteria that reside on teeth and feed on residual food particles. The process creates acid—which damages teeth—but the bacteria associated with it are negatively robust and hardy. You may be wondering what kind of bacteria can be so resilient and damaging. Bacteria called Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sobrinus are the culprits, but Streptococcus mutans might be the kicker. In fact, infants and children are especially susceptible to it—although it can readily affect adults, too. “Streptococcus mutans is very common and travels easily,” says Smigel.

And travel it does. It can go beyond the teeth and gums and reach the crevices in the tongue—and even reach the membranes lining the cavities of the heart. In short, Streptococcus mutans is surprisingly prolific and potentially damaging.

You’re probably already aware that bacteria reside in the mouth. Like the varied one hundred trillion bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your gut, there are 400 to 500 different microorganisms—good, bad and indifferent bacteria—in your mouth. Generally, the mouth’s ecosystem can maintain homeostasis, with each microbe staying in its assigned area. An increase in sugar consumption, for example, can shift the mouth’s environment to become more hospitable to bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans.

Here’s why: when sugar—a staple of our modern meals and snacks—is eaten, the mouth has an overall pH drop. This creates an acidic environment where acid-loving and acid-producing bacteria like Streptococcus mutans can push out other bacteria and take over their territory. Unlike other mouth organisms, Streptococcus mutans thrives, dominates and increases in acidic conditions.

There are some steps you can take, however, to support a healthy mouth. One way is to practice good oral hygiene and to limit the amount and frequency of sugar intake, since frequent sugary food intake keeps the mouth environment ripe for unhealthy bacteria. Like probiotics for the gut, probiotics for the mouth are available too and deliver good bacteria that are essential for optimal oral health. Oral probiotics can support gum and tooth health, while promoting, supporting and maintaining healthy and balanced microflora in the mouth.

And while you’re at it, you may want to suggest these steps to those close to you—since cavities can be contagious.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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