The $395 Million smile

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- So, what is your favorite thing about going to the dentist? Is it the comfortable chairs? The friendly people? Or maybe the joys of having a shot of anesthetic that leaves you drooling for the next couple of hours.

Some people seem to enjoy this more than others because they KEEP COMING BACK with new problems, especially cavities.

So what exactly is a cavity? How does the Air Force assess your risk of getting cavities? And more importantly, what can you do to prevent landing on our "frequent patient" list?

Dental caries, or cavities, are a preventable, infectious and transmissible bacteria-caused disease and is one of America's top infectious diseases. 

More than 400 different species of bacteria have been known to colonize the human mouth. You may have as many as 150 different microorganisms in your mouth at a given time. Certain bacteria in your mouth metabolize the sugars and starches you eat and produce acid as a by-product. If this acid attacks the teeth for 20 minutes or more it can eventually result in dental caries.

Many individuals fail to realize that the condition of their mouth affects the entire body. Research has shown a correlation between oral diseases and other chronic inflammatory conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, new studies suggest a link between pre-term, low birth weight babies and gum disease.

The Air Force classifies an individual's caries risk in three categories: Low Caries Risk- No cavities and no factors that may increase caries risk and good oral hygiene; Moderate Caries Risk- one or two cavities and at least one factor that may increase caries risk and fair oral hygiene; and High Caries Risk-three or more cavities with the presence of multiple risk factors and poor oral hygiene.

Factors that increase the risk of developing cavities include, but are not limited to: deep pits and fissures--deep grooves on your molars and premolars, large number of exposed roots, frequent sugar intake, inadequate fluoride exposure, inadequate salivary flow, tobacco use, eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, and localized white spots on your teeth. 

Cavities and poor oral hygiene can affect you and your family's health, in addition to the duties and responsibilities of your squadron, our wing, our command and the entire Air Force mission.

The Air Force's annual dental treatment cost in fiscal year 2008 was $368,000,000. The Air Force's annual private sector care cost for dental treatment (active duty members referred off-base for dental treatment) in fiscal year 2008 was $27,000,000. In addition to the $395 million lost in preventable dental treatment--almost the cost of three F-22 fighter jets-- millions of work hours were lost and some personnel were rendered non-deployable.

The majority of dental cavities in the Air Force population can be prevented with proper education, good oral hygiene, and a healthy diet. You should brush your teeth a minimum of two times a day with a soft bristled tooth brush. Medium and hard bristles can cause tooth and gum trauma.

In addition, flossing should be accomplished once a day. Your brushing and flossing technique is more important than the brand of brush or floss you use. Remember to brush all surfaces of your teeth, along the gum line, and your tongue. Brushing and flossing incorrectly will not adequately remove plaque, and may not prevent cavities or gum disease. Look for the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance on dental products your purchase, such as fluoride toothpaste and mouth rinses. The Seal of Acceptance is a symbol that promotes the safety and effectiveness of dental products.

The ADA advises reducing the quantity and frequency of snacks high in sugar between meals. Do not sip on sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, coffee or tea, with excessive sugar and cream, throughout your entire duty day. Sipping throughout the day creates a constant environment of sugar in your mouth, and a constant food source for the bacteria that cause cavities.

The ADA also recommends chewing gum containing Xylitol to help prevent cavities. Xylitol is a type of sugar that cannot be metabolized by the bacteria that cause cavities, and inhibits the bacteria from producing acid. You should chew two pieces of gum for at least 30 minutes, three times per day, especially after meals.

The preventive measures discussed above will guide you in improving your oral health. Dental caries management requires ownership by you to be effective. It is your mouth and your responsibility to take care of yourself. The dental clinic can assist you in managing your caries risk and answer any questions you may have.

Please contact the dental clinic at 377-1846 if you have any questions.