Oral Health Fact Sheet

Oral health is essential to general health and well-being. Diseases and conditions of the mouth have a direct impact on the health of the entire body. Over the past 50 years, there has been a dramatic improvement in the oral health of New Yorkers. Still, oral diseases are a major health concern that affect almost everyone. Good oral health can help improve birth outcomes, keep children from developing painful cavities, and prevent seniors and those with chronic conditions from developing life-threatening complications.

The New York State Prevention Agenda includes a goal to reduce the prevalence of dental caries among New York State children.

What is dental decay?

Tooth decay, also known as dental caries or cavities, is among the world's most common health problems. It is especially common in children, teenagers, and older adults, but anyone who has teeth can get cavities, including infants. If cavities aren't treated, they can lead to severe toothaches, infection, and tooth loss.

What causes dental decay?

Cavities are caused by a combination of factors, including bacteria in your mouth, frequent snacking, sipping sugary drinks, and not cleaning your teeth well. A sticky film of bacteria, called plaque, constantly forms on your teeth. When you eat food or drink beverages that have sugar in them, the bacteria make acids that attack tooth enamel, the hard, outer layer of your teeth, causing tiny openings. The stickiness of the plaque keeps these acids in contact with your teeth, the enamel breaks down, and cavities can form.

How do I know if I have cavities?

The signs and symptoms of cavities can vary from mild to extreme, depending on their size and location. They can include: tooth sensitivity; toothache; pain when eating or drinking something sweet, hot, or cold; visible holes or pits in your teeth; brown, black, or white staining on a tooth surface; and pain when you bite down.

What can I do to maintain good oral health?

  • Brush your teeth and gums with a soft bristle toothbrush at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Use dental floss daily to clean between your teeth.
  • Replace your toothbrush every 3-4 months.
  • Drink fluoridated water regularly.
  • Avoid drinking soft drinks such as sodas and sports drinks which appear to be the greatest cause of tooth enamel erosion.
  • Eat nutritious and balanced meals and limit between meal snacks. Avoid sugars and starches when you do snack.
  • Do not smoke or chew tobacco.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Visit your dentist regularly. An exam of the mouth can provide early detection of pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions.
  • Maintaining healthy gums is important because of hormonal changes during adolescence.
  • Check with your dentist about using supplemental fluoride which strengthens your teeth.
  • Ask your dentist about applying dental sealants, a protective coating, to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth to protect them from decay.
  • Talk to your doctor and dentist if medications you take give you a dry mouth.