Tooth Decay - Prevention

It is easier and less expensive to prevent tooth decay than to treat it. The four major steps in preventing tooth decay are: proper oral (mouth) hygiene; fluoride treatments; use of sealants; and attention to diet.

The first powered dental drill was invented by George Washington's dentist, John Greenwood (1760–1819). The drill was operated using the foot-treadle (pedal) from Greenwood's mother's spinning wheel. Greenwood's son continued to use the drill, but other dentists did not adopt the idea. Instead, they continued to use small picks to clean the decay from teeth.

The first dental drill operated by a motor was invented in 1864 by Englishman George F. Harrington. Harrington's drill was powered by a tightly-wound spring, like the spring in a clock. Only four years later, an American inventor, George F. Green, redesigned the drill. His model used the power of compressed air.

The dental drill is still an essential part of every dentist's equipment. However, today's drills are much more advanced than those of Harrington and Green. The finest drills operate at a speed of up to 400,000 revolutions per minute. By comparison, the earliest commercial drills were rather slow and ran at no more than about 600 to 800 revolutions per minute.

Oral Hygiene

The three steps in proper oral hygiene are brushing, flossing, and regular checkups. Dentists recommend brushing the teeth at least twice a day, after meals and snacks if possible. Regular brushing keeps plaque and bacteria from collecting on teeth.

Flossing removes food particles and plaque from between teeth and other areas not reached by a toothbrush. Regular visits to the dentist make it possible to catch tooth decay before it becomes too serious.

Fluoride Treatments

Fluorides are chemicals that help reduce tooth decay by combining with minerals in the teeth to form a hard, tough surface. Bones and teeth all contain fluorides naturally. Using extra fluoride increases the natural strength of tooth enamel. Some communities add fluorides to their water supplies. People in those communities get the fluoride they need from their drinking water. Many kinds of toothpaste and mouthwash also contain fluoride. In areas where fluoride is not added to the public water supply, it can be obtained from these sources. Fluoride treatments are also available from dentists. The fluorides can be brushed directly on tooth surfaces.

Fluorides are especially important for young children's dental health. The fluorides become part of new teeth as they develop and grow and become harder and more resistant to bacterial acids.


A sealant is a thin, plastic material used to cover tooth surfaces. It protects enamel from attack by bacterial acids. Sealants are especially helpful on irregular surfaces of the teeth. They prevent food and plaque from getting trapped on these surfaces.

Sealants are usually clear or tooth-colored. They do not affect the appearance of a person's teeth and may last as long as ten years. Some dentists recommend the application of sealants as soon as a child's permanent teeth appear, in order to protect the teeth from ever becoming decayed.


Diet is an important factor in maintaining good oral health. People whose diet includes large amounts of sugar and starch are likely to have more tooth decay. Foods that stick to the teeth can also be a problem because they help bacteria stay on tooth surfaces longer.

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