Health Team

Gum, mints fight cavities

Posted December 26, 2008 1:32 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:11 p.m. EDT

— Gum and mints might be the latest recommendation from your dentist.

Teeth become more vulnerable to disease as people age, so dentists are always looking for more and better ways patients to take care of their teeth.

Bob Reeber found out about tooth decay the hard way. At his latest dentist appointment, he learned he had nine cavities.

"I skipped about two years, which was a mistake," Reeber said.

Cavities are caused by dental caries, a bacterial disease for which there is no cure.

"The best we can hope for is to manage that disease over time," said Dr. Dan Shugars, a dentist at the UNC School of Dentistry.

Saliva is a natural cleansing agent for teeth, but as people age, they do not make as much saliva. Additionally, many people, including Reeber, take medications that cause dry mouth, encouraging the growth of bacteria.

One inexpensive step to fight dental caries is popping in a breath mint, with a natural sugar called Xylitol. Studies have shown that the sugar, also found in some sugarless gums, helps disrupt dental bacteria in children.

Shugars expects positive results from a study with adults taking five mints a day.

"Just the mint or process of chewing stimulates saliva. And, again, that encourages or facilitates nature's process of cleaning your teeth," Shugars said.

Shugars also recommends that adults use a regular fluoride rinse once a day.