How Teeth Decay

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Many people in the preparedness community are ready for injuries and illness, but few people realize that dental problems will be part and parcel of any long-term survival scenario.   Dental equipment may not be necessary if you spend a few days without power due to a storm.  If you’re off the grid for 6 months or longer, however, this equipment will come in very handy.  If dental supplies are one of the holes in your medical preparedness plan, then you’ll likely have a lot of holes in your smile. This is why we have dental kits in our online store as well as medical kits.

In this article, we’ll discuss how how bacteria cause tooth disease.   Bacteria live in your mouth and colonize your teeth. Usually, they will accumulate in the crevices on your molars and at the level where the teeth and gums meet.  These colonies form an irregular thick film on the base of your enamel known as “tartar” or “plaque”.  The more tartar you have, the less healthy your gums and teeth are.

When you eat, these bacterial colonies also have a meal; they digest the sugars you take in and produce a toxic acid.  This acid has the effect of slowly dissolving the enamel of your teeth (the outside of the tooth that’s shiny).  This commonly happens around areas where you’ve had dental work already, like the edges of fillings and under crowns or caps.  People born with deep crevices on the crowns of their molars may have more of a tendency to get cavities than others with smoother crowns.

Once the enamel has broken down, you have what is called a “cavity”.  This could take just a few months to cause problems or could take 2-3 years.  Once the cavity becomes deep enough to invade the soft inner part of the tooth (the pulp), the process speeds up and, because you have living nerves in each tooth, starts to cause pain.   If the cavity isn’t dealt with, it can lead to infection once the bacteria dig deep enough into the nerve or the surrounding gum tissue.

Inflamed gums have a distinctive appearance: They’ll bleed when you brush your teeth and appear red and swollen.  This is called “gingivitis”, and is very common once you reach adulthood. As the condition worsens, it could easily lead to infection. If it affects the gums, it may spread to the roots of teeth or even the bony socket.

Once the root of the tooth is involved, you could develop a particularly severe infection called an “abscess”.  This is an accumulation of pus and inflammatory fluid that causes swelling and can be quite painful.  Once you have an abscess, you will need antibiotic therapy and/or perhaps a procedure called an “incision and drainage” to drain the pus that has accumulated.  The tooth will likely be unsalvageable at this point without a root canal treatment.  Tooth abscesses, if untreated, sometimes cause bacteria to enter your circulation. This can cause a life-threatening condition called septicemia.

Diet plays an important part in the process of cavity formation. A diet that is high in sugar causes bacteria to produce the most acid.  The longer your mouth bacteria are in eating mode, the longer your mouth has acid digging into your teeth. The two most important factors that cause cavities are the number of times per day and the duration of time that the teeth are exposed to this acid.

Let’s say you have a can of soda in your hand.   If you drink the entire thing in 10 minutes, you’ve had one short episode in which your mouth bacteria are producing high quantities of acid.  The acid level drops after about 30 minutes or so. If you nurse that soda, however, and sip from it continuously for hours, you’ve increased both the number of exposures to sugar and the amount of time it’s swishing around in there.  The acid level never really gets a chance to drop, and that leads to decay.

Here’s a simple way to make a survival toothbrush.  Take a twig of live wood (Native Americans preferred black birch for its minty taste) and chew on the end until it gets fibrous.  Then use that end to brush your teeth!

More on dental preparedness in future articles.

Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones


The Survival Medicine Handbook’s 2nd Edition has an extensive section on dental issues in times of trouble. Check it out and more than 100 5-star reviews at:

Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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