Scientific evidence is strong that cavities are a contagious disease with primary caregivers initiating the process in young children. How to protect your family from transmission of the highly infectious bacteria responsible.
Cavities, also known as caries or tooth decay, is one of the most common chronic diseases for children in the United States. In some countries such as Australia, it is number one! (1, 2)
What almost all parents do not realize, however, is that tooth decay is not only a chronic disease. It is highly infectious as well!
Cavities are infectious?
Yes, you can “catch” cavities from someone else, just like you can a cold or the flu! (3)
Most parents are shocked when they realize that something so simple as sharing a spoon or cup with a child can, in fact, transmit cavity-causing bacteria into their little one’s mouth, initiating the process of tooth decay.
We all know about the importance of washing hands, but no one…including conventional dentists…ever seems to mention keeping your cavities to yourself too!
How Cavities are “Caught”
The pathogenic bacterial strains most responsible for tooth decay in early childhood are Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sobrinus.
According to Dr. Trey Wilson DDS, these pathogenic bacterial strains responsible for causing cavities can spread from mouth to mouth via shared food and utensils as well as sneezing, coughing, and kissing. (4)
While some may doubt whether cavities can truly be caught and spread from person to person, there is quite a bit of solid scientific evidence on the subject.
Scientific Studies on Cavities as an Infectious Disease
The bacterium Streptococcus mutans is highly contagious and one of the strains primarily implicated in early childhood cavities.
According to a 2017 report in the South African Dental Journal, the evidence is strong that babies are initially exposed to this bacteria via transmission from their primary caregivers.
While Streptococcus mutans is absent in the mouth at birth, once the teeth erupt, its prevalence increases rapidly. This is because the bacterium requires a non-shedding surface such as enamel to thrive.
Since SM [Streptococcus mutans] are found in the mouth, transmission is likely mediated via the saliva. The primary care giver of the child (mother, father, guardian, siblings) has been implicated through genetic analysis as a donor, and studies have reported a strong positive correlation between the presence of SM in the saliva of mothers and their children. (5)
It is important to note that that Streptococcus mutans is part of normal flora. Hence, it is not possible to completely eliminate it, nor should that be the goal.
Factors that Increase Transmission
However, when Streptococcus mutans becomes a dominant strain in saliva, an imbalance in the oral flora exists. It is at this point that the chance of transmission to others becomes significantly higher.
The Australian Dental Journal, in a review of current knowledge about the key factors involved in oral colonization of the Streptococcus mutans in young children, cited the following.
Mothers with salivary levels of S. mutansvgreaterthan 106 organisms per millilitre of saliva have a greater than 50 per cent rate of transmission of the bacteria to their 10 to 16 month old children compared with a rate of only 30 per cent in the case of mothers with only 103 organisms per millilitre of saliva. (6)
Researchers further noted that:
…mothers who have greater caries experience, periodontal disease, poor oral hygiene, low socio-economic status and education as well as frequent snacking have higher risk of transmission of MS [Streptococcus mutans] to the infant. (7)
How to Protect Your Family from Catching Cavities
The South African Dental Journal warns parents that the evidence is strong that cavity-causing bacteria are transmitted from mothers to babies and that dental decay is indeed a contagious disease. (8)
The question is, what to do to best prevent cavity transmission within a family?
Avoidance of refined sugars and grains and following a nutrient-dense traditional diet is the best way dietarily to protect the teeth from decay according to the seminal work Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Dr. Weston A. Price DDS.
However, toxic environmental factors are complicating the process today. So many onslaughts to the immune system negatively impact dental health. These assaults on immunity were, for the most part, not present at the time of Dr. Price’s research early in the last century.
According to the Australian Dental Journal, the frequency of inoculation with Streptococcus mutans is key.
…mothers who share foods, drinks, utensils, toothbrushes and other items with their children have the highest risk of transmitting MS to their children. (9)
Thus, it will likely take more than dietary vigilance for parents to protect their children from infectious cavities taking hold.
Ways to Avoid Sharing of Cavity Causing Bacteria at Home
Besides avoiding the sharing of anything that would transmit saliva between family members, other protective measures could include:
- Kisses on the cheek instead of the mouth.
- Consider using oral probiotic lozenges to replenish beneficial salivary flora to reduce the population of Streptococcus mutans in the mouth and the risk of transmission.
- Teach children to never share food or utensils with their friends.
- Encourage family members to cover their mouth with a cloth or the elbow (not the hands!) when sneezing or coughing at home to minimize the airborne spread of cavity-causing bacteria.
- Invest in a quality air filter that removes bacteria and viruses from the air.
- Oil pulling with an ozone-enhanced oil and/or floss with ozonated oil. Ozone kills pathogenic oral bacteria.
- Schedule regular dental cleanings and examinations by a biological dentist who understands that cavities are contagious, treating the cause, and not just the symptoms. If you don’t have one in your area, my dentist also offers phone consults to provide a second opinion or walk you through how to best deal with your conventional dentist. You can contact Dr. Litano’s office here.
(1) CDC: Children’s Oral Health
(2, 3) Tooth Decay in Children
(4) Are Cavities Contagious?
(5, 8) South African Dental Journal. Is Dental Caries Contagious?
(6, 7, 9) Australian Dental Journal. Factors influencing oral colonization of mutans streptococci in young children