People often have lots of questions about their teeth. Patient education is an important component of maintaining good oral health, and Dr. Allen is happy to answer your questions. Here are some of the most common questions that Dr. Allen hears. And if you are at our office and have other questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

Q: At what age should I start brushing my child’s teeth?

A: As soon as their first tooth erupts, which is around 6 months. Prior to this you should use your finger or a washcloth to rub on top of their gums to get them used to the sensation. And even after they grow a bit older and are able to hold and use a toothbrush themselves, they probably aren’t doing a very good job (missing spots, or not taking enough time) and will need a bit of “touch-up” help from mom or dad.

Q: What exactly causes cavities?

A: Cavities, or tooth decay, is caused by acids eating through your tooth enamel. Those acids come from bacteria in your mouth or from acidic food and drinks in your diet. Cavity causing bacteria metabolize the sugars found in the foods that you eat and produce acid as a by-product. These acids de-mineralize the tooth structure and eventually cause a cavity. Cavities can be prevented by minimizing your consumption of acidic and high-sugar foods, and by brushing and flossing thoroughly to remove food and bacteria-filled plaque from your teeth.

Q: I had few/no cavities when I was younger, now I have a bunch of them all of a sudden. Why?

A: Most likely, you didn’t get those cavities all of a sudden. On a daily basis, your teeth are going through cycles of de-mineralization (tooth decay) and re-mineralization (repair). Acids attack the tooth enamel and cause de-mineralization and components in your saliva cause re-mineralization. In most cases a filling is not required until that de-mineralization reaches a certain depth into the tooth, or there is a break in the enamel surface. This takes time, and those “new” cavities have probably been there for years, slowly growing until they’ve reached the point where they need treatment.

Q: How can I get straighter teeth without having to wear braces?

A:Clear aligner therapy (ClearCorrect) can straighten teeth without wires or brackets. For more complex cases, braces may still be needed, but clear aligners work very well in most situations. If teeth are chipped or worn, porcelain veneers are another option to get a straighter, whiter, more youthful smile.

Q: Should I have my old metal fillings replaced?

A: Maybe. Amalgam (also known as silver fillings or mercury fillings) has been the main restorative filling material in dentistry for many, many years. Should you have an amalgam filling replaced if it is coming apart or the tooth around it is cracked? Yes. Should you have an amalgam filling replaced if you don’t like the dark metal showing when you smile or talk? Yes. Should you have an amalgam filling replaced because it is toxic to your mouth and body? No. From time to time someone stirs up a lot of fear about the mercury in amalgam fillings, making claims that they are the cause of dozens of illnesses. Do amalgam fillings have mercury in them? Yes. Is mercury toxic? You bet it is. And so are hundreds of other elements and chemicals that you encounter in the environment on a daily basis. But what counts is level of exposure, and whatever miniscule amount of mercury given off by these fillings is far, far below the threshold of any toxic effects. I don’t use amalgam in my office but it is because there are better materials available today (in terms of strength and cosmetics), not for health reasons.

Q: My parents had bad teeth and ended up with dentures so I will too, right?

A: No. Your parents gave you your eye color and a lot of your other characteristics, but luckily you aren’t stuck with their bad teeth. There are a small handful of genetic disorders that cause teeth to form incorrectly, but these are pretty rare. One important thing that affects your teeth that is handed down from parents to children is habits. You tend to eat the same sort of foods as your parents (as a kid you really don’t have a choice, do you?), and if they didn’t put too much importance on brushing and going to see the dentist regularly then you might not either. For the vast majority of people the health of their teeth depends on two things: diet and home care (brushing and flossing). Most dental problems can be fixed or avoided altogether with regular dental checkups and good home care.

Q: How are digital x-rays different from traditional x-rays?

A: Digital x-rays use an electronic sensor to capture an image, whereas traditional film-based x-rays use a chemical process. Digital x-rays save time by providing an image on a computer screen in a matter of seconds, instead of a lengthy processing time for film. Once on the screen, the digital image can be magnified, lightened, darkened, or changed in any number of other ways to help the dentist get more information from the image and also help the patient to better see what is going on with their teeth. And because the digital sensor is more sensitive than film, that means patients are exposed to only 1/3 the amount of radiation than when film is used.

Q: What is gum disease, and what causes it?

A: Gum disease (or periodontal disease) is a loss of the bone and gums that surround and support the teeth. In advanced stages, this can lead to pain and tooth loss. Gum disease is caused by chronic buildup of plaque and calculus (tartar) on the crown and roots of the teeth. In the early stages, this buildup causes inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and can make the gums tender and bleed. As this inflammation goes on continually, it worsens and causes the gums to pull away from the teeth, eventually leading to gum recession and bone loss. Once the bone loss gets advanced, teeth become loose because they have no more support and need to be removed. In most cases, this bone and gum loss is irreversible so prevention is extremely important in maintaining your teeth. Regular professional cleanings at your dentist’s office ensure that calculus buildup (which cannot be removed with a toothbrush) is removed before it can cause bone and gum loss.