Cavities can be contagious

Bacteria related to tooth decay can be shared with loved ones

By Dr. Stephanie McGann, DMD, FAGD, Columnist, The Times

UTStephCollogoI hear it every day, “my mom had bad teeth, I guess I got this from her.” Perhaps that is true, but not in the way we may think.  Researchers have found that dental disease causing bacteria can be transmitted from one person to another.

In the case of cavities, the bacteria Streptococcus Mutans is responsible. It is this particular bacteria that is responsible for consuming sugars from our foods and creating acids that erode and decay the teeth. The damage to the teeth caused by this bacteria is commonly referred to as cavities.

We are not born with Strep mutans in our mouths, but many children are exposed early on by a caregiver. When a mother shares a utensil or sucks on a pacifier or baby bottle to “clean it” what they may be doing is transferring bacteria from their mouths to their children’s. Once exposed those bacteria become a regular inhabitant of the child’s mouth.

What about kissing? While quick peck on the cheek is not to blame here, a passionate kiss may in fact transmit disease causing bacteria. Most of us would refrain from kissing or being kissed if we were sick. However, the types of bacteria and protozoa that cause gum disease and cavities can be shared. Unfortunately not all bacteria is created equal. Some strains of bacteria are more aggressive and cause disease more readily than other strains. In the case of gum disease, a host of other bacteria are responsible.  We see advertisements every day for products to kill the germs that cause bad breath. It is possible to pick up one of these aggressive strains of bacteria from kissing.

What can we do? First, let’s give our kids a healthy start. Never use your own saliva to clean a baby pacifier or bottle nipple. If clean water is not readily available, a firm wipe with a clean cloth will do. This also goes for the “spit and rub” method of cleaning a messy child’s face or sharing a spoon. Make sure our children develop good oral hygiene habits and never share toothbrushes. Regular dental check-ups are an essential part of a healthy smile.

Kissing is great, but mouth sores and periodontal problems can be transmitted from one person to another. The good news – with good oral hygiene, a healthy immune system and regular dental care even a wet sloppy kiss is nothing to fear.  In a healthy person with good oral hygiene the body’s natural defenses protect us from these passionate invaders.

It’s very important for parents to maintain the own oral health in order to help their children stay healthy.

Dr. Stephanie McGann, who has more than two decades of dental practice experience, is a resident of the Unionville area and along with her partner, Dr. Marie Scott, operates The Brandywine Smile Center, a family-friendly dental practice in Concordville. Dr. McGann has opened a new practice in Valley Township, Rainbow Valley Dental. She is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry.

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