8 Surprising Things That Put You at Risk for Cavities

Young boy sitting in a dental chair while talking to his female dentist about cavities

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Cavities are extremely common. Around 90% of adults ages 20-64 have had a cavity, also known as tooth decay or caries.

Cavities form when bacteria stick to a tooth’s surface via plaque. Those bacteria feed on sugars in the mouth, making the environment more acidic. The acid wears away at the tooth enamel. Over time, a hole, or cavity, can form. 

When left untreated, cavities can lead to severe infections and can eventually cause gum disease, tooth loss and other complications outside of the mouth.

Research has linked tooth decay and gum disease to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, dementia, and other health complications. While experts say more research is needed to pinpoint direct links between oral health and specific conditions, it’s safe to say that taking care of your oral health has a positive influence on your overall health. 

Practicing good oral hygiene (brushing twice a day and flossing at least once) is an obvious way to stave off your risk of developing cavities. But if you identify with any of the conditions below, you’ll need to be even more careful. 

Dry Mouth

Saliva acts like an immune system for your mouth, Augusto Robles, DDS, DMD, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s school of dentistry, told Health. This is because it washes away cavity-causing bacteria, food, and acid before they can damage your teeth.

But if you don’t make enough saliva, plaque, which harbors cavity-causing bacteria, and food are more likely to just sit on the teeth for longer. This provides the perfect environment for cavity formation.

Some medications and conditions can cause you to have dry mouth. If this is the case, you should talk to your dentist about other ways to keep your mouth healthy, such as calcium and phosphate supplements—which protect the enamel on your teeth—or lubricating mouth gels.

Groovy Teeth

The shape of your teeth can make them more susceptible for cavities. 

For example, molars sometimes have deep grooves where food and bacteria that cause decay can build up. And because those nooks and crannies are harder to reach with a toothbrush or floss, it can be hard to prevent the formation of cavities there.

This is why dentists recommend sealants—which fill grooves and block bacteria and food from entering—for adolescents, as well as adults who are at high risk for developing cavities. 

Ensuring that you see a dentist for regular checkups can help you keep those grooves in check and take preventative measures. And if a cavity does start to form there, it’s much better for a dentist to catch it early.


Some foods are worse than others when it comes to keeping your teeth healthy. 

Here’s a breakdown of some of the biggest cavity-causing foods:

  • Sugar: Candy and sugary drinks are infamous for wreaking havoc in the mouth. This is because the bacteria that cause cavities thrive on sugar. 
  • Acidic foods or drinks: Acid causes the enamel that protects your teeth to weaken, making your teeth more susceptible to decay. The bacteria in your mouth create acid when they digest sugars, but you can also make your mouth a more acidic environment when you drink sodas, coffee or other fruit juices. 
  • Processed starches: Processed carbohydrates like crackers and potato chips can coat and settle into the nooks and crannies of your teeth. And, with the help of saliva, they turn into sugars—the fuel for cavity-causing bacteria. 
  • Sticky foods: Foods like dried fruit, gummies, or hard candy don’t bode well for healthy teeth. They can easily get stuck in between teeth and inside of grooves, where they can stick around until bacteria turn them into enamel-damaging acids.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol dehydrates your mouth, taking away the saliva barrier that neutralizes acid and protects against cavities, according to Robles. Additionally, many alcoholic beverages and cocktails contain simple sugars. 

Frequent Snacking

We know that certain foods are more likely to lead to cavities, but how often you eat them also plays a role. 

Every time you eat carbohydrates, sugars or acidic foods, your mouth becomes more acidic. After you eat, your saliva neutralizes your mouth, washing away destructive acid. This process takes about 25 minutes, said Robles. However, if you’re eating multiple snacks or grazing throughout the day, your mouth never gets a chance to return to its normal levels.

So, as you sip on a sugary drink or enjoy those sweet snacks, your teeth are constantly under an “acid attack,” meaning they are exposed to acids that can break down the protective enamel.

Generally, it’s better for your oral health to reduce frequent snacking. And, if you do enjoy the occasional sugary drink, have it with a meal or during a break, rather than sipping on it for a long period of time.

Certain Conditions and Medications

Certain medical conditions can increase your risk of developing cavities. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Diabetes: People with diabetes are more likely to experience dry mouth, especially if their diabetes isn’t being treated. Gum disease is also a common complication for people with diabetes. 
  • GERD/Acid reflux: People with GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) are more likely to have erosion on the surface of their teeth, making it easier for cavities to form. This is due to the acid reflux, which can enter the mouth when it comes up through the esophagus. 
  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can cause dry mouth and nutrient deficiencies. Binging and purging can be especially damaging to oral health because stomach acid can erode the teeth and speed up decay. 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: People living with rheumatoid arthritis can develop a complication called Sjögren disease, which can cause dry mouth and put your teeth at risk for cavities. 
  • Chemotherapy and radiation: When your head and face are exposed to chemotherapy or radiation, your salivary glands are affected too, making it hard for your body to produce saliva. “Also, chemotherapy and radiation can affect the structure of the tooth, making it softer and more prone to cavities,” said Robles.

It’s important to discuss your health conditions with your dentist, so they can help you find ways to mitigate any negative effects they may have on your oral health. 


Some people might do everything right when it comes to their oral health, but they still get cavities. That could be due to their genes.

According to a large 2019 analysis, there are a number of genes that affect oral health and may contribute to an increased risk for tooth decay. The researchers found that certain genes determine how your teeth form and whether their shape is more susceptible to harboring bacteria. There are also genes that determine the makeup of your saliva and which bacteria are most likely to take up residence on your teeth.

But that doesn’t mean you should give up on your oral health care. Establishing good oral hygiene habits and seeing a dentist regularly can go a long way to prevent cavities, no matter what genes were passed down to you.

Brushing Your Teeth Too Soon After Eating

Dentists recommend brushing your teeth after meals—just don’t brush them too soon.

Here’s why: when you drink or eat something acidic, your tooth enamel begins to soften and break down. If you immediately begin brushing your teeth, the abrasive bristles can further damage the surface of the teeth. 

So, give yourself about 25 minutes after eating or drinking before you brush. By then, your saliva will have done the work of remineralizing your teeth. If you don’t want to wait, Robles said you can swish some water around in your mouth to neutralize the acid.

Smoking and Vaping

Not only can smoking tobacco dry out the mouth, but it can also alter the balance of good and bad microbes that keep cavities at bay. When this happens, the bad microbes that cause cavities can reproduce and cause damage. 

Vaping also carries risks for oral health. In a preliminary study, researchers found that vaping may increase your risk of getting cavities. They believe this is because the liquid in vape cartridges coats the mouth and teeth, providing an environment for bacteria to grow and multiply. 

To make matters worse, flavored vape liquids sometimes contain sugar, and that sugary coating creates the perfect environment for cavity-causing bacteria to do their work. 

A Quick Review

If you want to keep your entire body healthy, it’s important not to ignore your mouth and teeth. Since cavities are a common sign of declining oral health, it’s important to know what causes them and how to avoid them.

Some factors that cause cavities may be out of your control, like a certain medication, genetics, or a health condition. But you have power over other factors, like your diet, your habits, and your lifestyle choices.

One of the best things you can do to avoid cavities is see a dentist regularly. If you think you may have a cavity, be sure to get it treated ASAP, because it can eventually cause a painful infection. 

When you take care of your oral health, you’re doing a favor for your entire body.

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17 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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