It’s hard to imagine, but little more than a century ago today’s “minor” bacterial and viral infections were often deadly. This changed with the advent of antibiotics, drugs which kill disease-causing microbes. Decades after the development of penicillin and similar antibiotics, we routinely rely on them for treating infection. They’re quite prominent in dental care in treating advanced forms of periodontal (gum) disease or reducing bacteria that cause tooth decay.
But the age of antibiotics may be in danger: their overuse in medicine and the food industry has led to the rise of resistant microbial strains — “superbugs” — that no longer respond to first line antibiotics or, in some cases, to second or third line drugs. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates more than two million people annually will contract one of these superbugs of which more than 20,000 will die. If current practices continue, the growth of resistant strains (as well as allergic reactions among users of antibiotics) will increase. The answer is a more modified use of antibiotics.
For healthcare providers, this means adopting new protocols in which we attempt to prescribe antibiotics that specifically target an identified microbe (which we’ve determined through more rigorous diagnostic testing), and in limited amounts. We must also rein in the practice of antibiotic use in the food industry, routinely administered to livestock to prevent disease or to enhance growth. Many countries, including the U.S., are now moving toward a more limited practice in which only animals that are demonstrably sick receive antibiotics. This will limit their release into the greater environment, which is a contributing factor to growing microbial resistance.
Patients also play a role in the better use of antibiotics. We must first change the perception that antibiotics are a “cure-all” — the answer to every illness. It’s also important for patients who’ve been prescribed antibiotics to complete the course of treatment, even if after a day or two they feel better; stopping antibiotic treatment prematurely increases the chances targeted microbes develop a resistance to that particular drug.
Altering our perception and use of antibiotics will require a tremendous effort for all of society. But making these changes will help ensure antibiotics continue to serve humanity as an important health benefit well into the future.
More than likely your great-grandparents, grandparents and even your parents had a common dental experience: when one of their teeth developed a cavity, their dentist removed the decayed portion (and maybe a little more) through drilling and then filled the cavity. In other words, treatment was mainly reactive—fix the problem when it occurred, then fix it again if it reoccurred.
You may have had similar experiences—but the chances are good your dentist’s approach is now quite different. Today’s tooth decay treatment is much more proactive: address first the issues that cause tooth decay, and if it does occur treat it with an eye on preventing it in the future.
This approach depends on maintaining equilibrium between two sets of competing factors that influence how your teeth may encounter tooth decay. This is known as the caries balance (caries being another name for tooth decay). On one side are factors that increase the risk of decay, known by the acronym BAD: Bad Bacteria that produce acid that dissolves the minerals in tooth enamel; Absence of Saliva, the body’s natural acid neutralizer; and Dietary Habits, especially foods with added sugars that feed bacteria, and acid that further weakens enamel.
There are also factors that decrease the risk of tooth decay, known by the acronym SAFE: Saliva and Sealants, which focuses on methods to boost low salivary flow and cover chewing surfaces prone to decay with sealant materials; Antimicrobials, rinses or other substances that reduce bad bacteria populations and encourage the growth of beneficial strains; Fluoride, increased intake or topical applications of this known enamel-strengthening chemical; and Effective Diet, reducing the amount and frequency of sugary or acidic foods and replacing them with more dental-friendly choices.
In effect, we employ a variety of techniques and materials that inhibit BAD factors and support SAFE ones. The foundation for prevention, though, remains the same as it was for past family generations—practice effective oral hygiene by brushing and flossing daily and regular dental cleanings and checkups to keep bacterial plaque from accumulating and growing. Your own diligent daily care rounds out this more effective way that could change your family history of tooth decay for you and future generations.
In her decades-long career, renowned actress Kathy Bates has won Golden Globes, Emmys, and many other honors. Bates began acting in her twenties, but didn't achieve national recognition until she won the best actress Oscar for Misery — when she was 42 years old! “I was told early on that because of my physique and my look, I'd probably blossom more in my middle age,” she recently told Dear Doctor magazine. “[That] has certainly been true.” So if there's one lesson we can take from her success, it might be that persistence pays off.
When it comes to her smile, Kathy also recognizes the value of persistence. Now 67, the veteran actress had orthodontic treatment in her 50's to straighten her teeth. Yet she is still conscientious about wearing her retainer. “I wear a retainer every night,” she said. “I got lazy about it once, and then it was very difficult to put the retainer back in. So I was aware that the teeth really do move.”
Indeed they do. In fact, the ability to move teeth is what makes orthodontic treatment work. By applying consistent and gentle forces, the teeth can be shifted into better positions in the smile. That's called the active stage of orthodontic treatment. Once that stage is over, another begins: the retention stage. The purpose of retention is to keep that straightened smile looking as good as it did when the braces came off. And that's where the retainer comes in.
There are several different kinds of retainers, but all have the same purpose: To hold the teeth in their new positions and keep them from shifting back to where they were. We sometimes say teeth have a “memory” — not literally, but in the sense that if left alone, teeth tend to migrate back to their former locations. And if you've worn orthodontic appliances, like braces or aligners, that means right back where you started before treatment.
By holding the teeth in place, retainers help stabilize them in their new positions. They allow new bone and ligaments to re-form and mature around them, and give the gums time to remodel themselves. This process can take months to years to be complete. But you may not need to wear a retainer all the time: Often, removable retainers are worn 24 hours a day at first; later they are worn only at night. We will let you know what's best in your individual situation.
So take a tip from Kathy Bates, star of the hit TV series American Horror Story, and wear your retainer as instructed. That's the best way to keep your straight new smile from changing back to the way it was — and to keep a bad dream from coming true.
If you would like more information about orthodontic retainers, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more about this topic in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Why Orthodontic Retainers?” and “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.” The interview with Kathy Bates appears in the latest issue of Dear Doctor.
Modern dental care wouldn’t be the same without x-rays. Since dentists began capturing x-ray images a century ago to detect beginning tooth decay, billions of teeth have been preserved.
“Catching it early” is the key to staying ahead of this aggressive bacterial infection. Once it breaks through the protective defenses of tooth enamel, it can advance toward the center of the tooth, the pulp, damaging dentin as it goes. While we can effectively stop it at this point with a root canal treatment, it’s better for the tooth’s long-term health to detect and treat any decay early on with a less-invasive filling or other treatment method.
X-ray imaging helps make that possible, revealing decay much easier than we can see with the unaided eye. And while we can often detect decay in front teeth by visual examination or by using very bright lighting, that’s not as easy with the less accessible back teeth. For those teeth we use a special x-ray technique known as the bitewing.
The name comes from the small frame used to hold the film. It’s held in place in the mouth by the patient biting down on small tabs or “wings” extending from the frame. The x-ray beam travels through the outer cheek and teeth to the film being held in the frame on the back side of the teeth. When exposed, we’ll be able to view the interior of these back teeth: a set of four bitewings gives us a full view of all the upper and lower molars and pre-molars on each side of the jaws.
Like other forms of radiation energy, too much or too frequent exposures to x-rays can lead to serious health problems. But bitewing x-rays carry little risk to health. That’s because they fit well with the ALARA principle, meaning “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” which helps guide our use of x-rays. Patients receive a fraction of the radiation exposure from routine bitewing x-rays than they receive annually from the natural environment.
Without bitewing x-rays and other diagnostic methods, the chances are high that tooth decay or other dental problems can go undetected in their early stages. Using this important tool can help us head off major damage before it occurs.
If you would like more information on the role of x-rays in dental care, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Bitewing X-Rays: A Routine Part of Your Dental Exam.”
We can do a great many things to preserve diseased teeth, from filling cavities to crowning damaged but still viable teeth to protect them and restore their attractiveness. But there may come a point where continued treatment just isn't worth it, and it may be time to remove and replace your troubled teeth.
Dental implants have become the premier restoration for missing teeth. But they have some anatomical limitations and may not work for some situations like excessive bone loss or close nerve proximity. And while a removable partial denture is a solid option, perhaps you'd rather have a fixed solution.
You might then want to consider a fixed bridge to replace one or more missing teeth. This tried and true option has been a mainstay in dentistry for several decades; and while implants may have surpassed them in popularity, they're still available and effective as a restorative option.
A traditional fixed bridge is composed of three or more life-like crowns that are fused together like pickets in a fence. The crown or crowns in the middle fill the empty tooth space; the outside crowns fit over and are bonded to the natural teeth on either side of the empty space to support the bridge. These natural teeth must be reduced in size to accommodate the crowns to fit over them.
Depending on how many teeth are missing, fixed bridges can be a more affordable alternative to dental implants and can achieve life-like results in both form and dental function. But the alterations required for the supporting teeth are permanent and can weaken them. The interface between the natural teeth and the bridge crowns has a higher risk of decay and periodontal disease, so you'll need to be extra vigilant with daily hygiene and regular dental cleanings and checkups.
And even though implants can be more expensive in the short-term, they typically have better durability and less maintenance costs than other restorations. Over the long-term, an implant restoration might actually incur less cost than a fixed bridge.
Still, a fixed bridge can be an effective way to replace missing teeth. Depending on your finances and your overall dental health, a bridge could help you regain an attractive smile.
If you would like more information on options for replacing missing teeth, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Crowns & Bridgework.”
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