There are some foods and drinks that can lead to cavities that people may not suspect
Even elementary schoolers know that munching on candy and not brushing their teeth can cause cavities. It’s one of the earliest oral care lessons everyone learns. But beyond the basics of dental hygiene (brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing daily), not a whole lot is said about how to avoid cavities. Perhaps that’s why it can be so surprising when the dentist says you have one.
It turns out that candy isn’t the only major cavity-causer. According to dentists, there are some other culprits to be aware of. Otherwise, you could end up with a toothache.
What Are Cavities and What Happens if They Go Untreated?
Sure, most people know that cavities are “bad,” but do you know what they are? “Cavities are also known as dental decay and it’s a very common chronic condition that affects people of all ages,” says Dr. Sonal S. Shah, DDS, an associate professor of oral and maxillofacial pathology and medicine at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine and an advisory board member for Dentistry.One.
Dr. Shah explains that a cavity is a bacterial tooth infection that causes enamel destruction, which can cause a hole in the tooth. Dr. Fadi Swaida, DDS, a dentist at Bond Street Dental, explains that when left untreated, the hole in the tooth can become deeper, eventually getting to the tooth’s roots and leading to an infection. “At that point, the patient will need a root canal to clean out the area. They may even need to have their tooth extracted if there is significant damage where it can't be repaired. Cavities will lead to tooth loss,” he says.
Unfortunately, the effects of leaving a cavity untreated don’t stop there. “Cavities can also lead to a bone infection or even an abscess, which could also spread to different parts of your face, neck and lymph nodes, which in the worst case scenario, could potentially get into your bloodstream and cause sepsis,” says Dr. Daniel Rubinshtein, DDS, a cosmetic dentist in New York City.
Both Dr. Shah and Dr. Swaida say that, sometimes, you’ll know you have a cavity because you’ll feel pain, particularly when you bite down. Both dentists say that being sensitive to hot or cold foods or drinks is another sign you may have a cavity. But Dr. Shah says that by the time someone feels pain due to their cavity, it’s already causing damage.
What’s best is to catch a cavity at its earliest stage before it causes pain or damage to the tooth. The best way to do this, she says, is to keep up with your routine dental appointments. “Dentists take x-rays to look for early signs of cavities and tooth breakdown before the patient feels pain,” she says.
While most people don’t like going to the dentist, Dr. Shah offers up this warning: “If you try to avoid the dentist, you’re going to end up seeing your dentist more,” she says. After all, no one wants a root canal.
#1 Unexpected Habit That Can Cause Cavities
Besides brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing once a day, and keeping up with your dentist appointments, all three dentists say that there are some foods and drinks that can lead to cavities that people may not suspect.
Dr. Rubinshtein says that one surprising habit that can increase the risk of cavities is drinking lemon water. This is because lemons are super acidic and the acid can stick to teeth and erode enamel. One scientific study found that lemon juice negatively impacted teeth more than grapefruit juice and orange juice, two other acidic drinks that can increase the risk of cavities.
Also, Dr. Shah says that having a diet high in starchy foods—especially those high on the glycemic index—increases the risk of cavities because it lowers dental plaque pH, which can cause tooth decay. This means that a diet high in foods like bread, white potatoes and white rice can increase the risk of cavities.
Does this mean you have to live a life without delicious potatoes, bread and fruit juices in addition to the sugary drinks and foods you already know can cause cavities? Dr. Shah says to rest assured that not even dentists will give up these foods for the sake of their teeth. She says to just be sure to brush your teeth after enjoying them.
However, if you do want to minimize certain types of foods to lower your risk of cavities, put sticky foods (which increase the risk of tooth decay because teeth have longer contact with them), sugary foods and drinks, and acidic foods and drinks at the top of the list.
With healthy habits in place, you’ll keep cavities away—and that’s something to smile about.
- Dr. Sonal S. Shah, DDS, associate professor of oral and maxillofacial pathology and medicine at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine and an advisory board member for Dentistry.One
- Dr. Fadi Swaida, DDS, dentist at Bond Street Dental in Toronto
- Dr. Daniel Rubinshtein, DDS, cosmetic dentist in New York City