Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine have found that yeast plays a role in a common form of serious tooth decay in toddlers. The yeast, known as Candida albicans, contributes to tooth decay when it combines with the enzyme GftB. GftB is a byproduct of the bacterium Streptococcus mutans, or S. mutans.
S. mutans is a common factor in tooth decay and periodontal disease.
When the bacterium and the yeast combine, they create a hard-to-treat biofilm that covers the teeth. Biofilms are home to millions of bacteria that cause tooth decay.
The Role of Sugar in Tooth Decay
Candida albicans binds with S. mutans when patients eat foods high in sugar.
Candida albicans can't effectively form plaque biofilms on teeth on its own, nor can it bind with S. mutans, unless in the presence of sugar. GftB uses the sugar in food to create a sticky substance that attracts the C. albicans yeast.
When young children consume foods and drinks high in sugar, they are at risk of developing cavities at a higher rate.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 42 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 11 in the United States have cavities in a baby tooth. An additional 21 percent of children between 6 and 11 have a cavity in a permanent tooth.
"We have known that sugar is a contributor to tooth decay, but this research is exciting because it leads us to new therapies to prevent cavities," Dr. Steven P. Rogers, D.D.S., P.C., said.
Rogers is a dentist is Grants Pass, Oregon.
Childhood Tooth Decay Is Serious, But It Can Be Prevented
Cavities can lead to decay of the tooth enamel and affect the inner tissues of the tooth. When decay-causing bacteria reach the pulp of the tooth, patients are left in pain and at risk for serious health complications. They are also left facing painful root canals to remove diseased pulp and prevent continued infection.
"Tooth decay is serious and can be reversed in some cases through early intervention," Rogers said.
Paving the Way for Potential New Tooth Decay Treatments for Children
The UPENN research project opens the door for new treatment for cavities in children. Some potential treatments discussed by project leaders involve the use of broad-spectrum antimicrobials, and not just the antibiotics that are commonly used to treat bacterial infections. These antimicrobials would also target yeast and block any interaction between the two germs.
Researchers on the project also looked at how the enzyme of the S. mutans or the cells of C. albicans can be targeted to prevent the two from combining and creating the biofilm. Preliminary research has found that the yeast and bacteria are unable to bond as effectively when the yeast cells are damaged.
Testing this theory, the Pennsylvania researchers found the weakened biofilm could be removed from the teeth through vigorous mouth rinses and tooth brushing.
Preventing Tooth Decay in Children Today
While the UPENN study findings and potential future treatments are exciting, Rogers recommends that parents take steps to prevent tooth decay today.
"Parents should encourage their children to practice good oral hygiene routines at home, which include brushing and flossing," Rogers said.
The American Dental Association recommends that people brush at least twice per day and floss once per day. Although there are some concerns with swallowing fluoride toothpaste, infants should have their teeth brushed with a small smear of toothpaste, and children age 2 to 5 should use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste.
"A small amount of toothpaste is sufficient for cleaning when children are young," Rogers said.
Parents should also take their children for annual dental checkups starting as soon as their first birthday, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Part of the checkup should include fluoride treatment to fortify the teeth against decay-causing bacteria.
American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. "Frequently Asked Questions." American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. 2017.
Columbia University Medical Center. "Recreational cannabis, used often, increases risk of gum disease." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 May 2017.