Skip to main content UVA Health logo of UVA Health
Healthy Balance

Got A Sweet Tooth? What Causes Cavities and Is Sugar the Culprit?

sugar effects series graphic
What does sugar do to your body? We answer all your sugar questions in Bittersweet? Effects of Sugar.

Sugar gets a bad rap for many reasons, but does it actually cause cavities? Kevin Clifford, DDS, explains that sugar isn’t the main culprit for cavities. Still, if you have a sweet tooth, be aware of your diet, hygiene and bacteria.

The Cavity Process

You have billions of bacteria in your mouth. Some are trying to help keep your teeth clean. Some cause cavities.

Bad Mouth Bacteria

Have you ever felt that slimy texture or residue on your teeth? That’s plaque buildup with lots of bad bacteria just sitting on your teeth. When this happens, it’s a good idea to brush your teeth. If plaque isn’t removed, it can cause a cavity which is a hole in the tooth that grows bigger over time.

You can’t control the bacteria in your mouth, but by brushing and flossing, you disrupt the bacteria from colonizing on your teeth. This prevents bad bacteria from causing any issues on your teeth.

Good Mouth Bacteria

Your mouth’s bacteria clean in cycles. When you don’t have proper hygiene or continuously eat sugary foods, you create an environment ripe for tooth decay. Constant sugar on your teeth lowers the pH levels in your mouth. While your saliva, filled with cleaning bacteria, can act like a buffer to neutralize the acidic pH between meals, if you keep eating, you don’t give the bacteria a chance to do it’s job.

Helpful hint: Clifford recommends drinking water or milk between meals to help balance the pH levels in your mouth and prevent cavities.

How Diet Plays A Role with Cavities

This is where sugar or your sweet tooth gets more of the blame. If your diet consists more of candy, fermentable carbohydrates (like potato chips) or sodas, that’s a big piece of the cavity equation. Sugar is like putting gasoline on a fire. It didn’t start the fire, but it’s not helping the situation.

What Exactly IS a ‘Sweet’ Tooth?

The name comes from when people would eat sweets and then get a toothache. Tooth pain usually means a cavity is present.

Candies like Laffy Taffy or gummies are worst for teeth since they stick to them longer. For sugary drinks, you’d be better off to drink an entire bottle at once to allow your mouth time to clean itself vs. sipping on it throughout the day.

Healthy Food Bad for Teeth

You’d be surprised to see what foods are actually bad for your teeth:

  • Juice
  • Raisins
  • Dried fruit
  • Citrus fruit
  • Cheese
  • Bread

Dental Hygiene Is Important

Clifford recommends brushing your teeth twice a day or, ideally, after every meal. In addition to brushing, you can also achieve good dental hygiene by:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Using toothpaste
  • Flossing
  • Rinsing with fluoride
  • Thorough rinsing

Why fluoride? If you have a tooth sensitivity or regularly consume very acidic foods, fluoride can help repair some of the micro-surface loss that eventually leads to cavities.

Don’t Forget Baby Teeth

Don’t forget to clean these little guys. Just because kids will lose them around 6 – 8 years old, they still need attention. Practicing a healthy dental routine at a young age will help ensure your kids keep healthy adult teeth. While adult teeth are protected from cavities until exposed above the gums, it doesn’t take long for the bad bacteria to colonize on the new pearly whites.

Time to Clean That Sweet Tooth?

Our pediatric dental care team offers a range of services to keep your little one’s teeth healthy. Schedule an appointment for a check-up or cavity filling.

But Flossing is the Worst

Yes, flossing isn’t really fun and sometimes it hurts, but it’s still important. If you can’t see space between your teeth, then the bristles of your toothbrush won’t be able to clean any food or plaque. There are no rules to flossing, so find which of these options works for you:

  • Waterpiks are pricey but make flossing quick and easy
  • Floss picks are great to take anywhere with you
  • And you can’t go wrong with traditional floss but involves more work and both hands

Healthy Teeth Means Healthy Lifestyle

It takes all three factors – diet, hygiene and bacteria – being out of whack to get a cavity, so it’s important not to overlook them. Moderation is key when it comes to your diet. Clifford isn’t saying don’t have any sugary foods, but remember they’re a treat and not a lifestyle.

Reply & View Comments Search Submit

Subscribe for Updates

Get stories & health tips every week