Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Oral Care

Font Size

Cavities Tied to Lower Risk of Head, Neck Cancer

Bacteria involved in cavity formation may have some cancer-protective effect, researcher says, but skeptics aren't sure

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 12 (HealthDay News) -- People with more cavities in their teeth may have a reduced risk for some head and neck cancers, a new study suggests.

That's because lactic acid bacteria produced by cavities may be protective against cancer cells, the study authors said.

"This was an unexpected finding since dental cavities have been considered a sign of poor oral health along with periodontal disease, and we had previously observed an increased risk of head and neck cancers among subjects with periodontal disease," said lead researcher Dr. Mine Tezal, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

Tezal was quick to note, however, that the finding doesn't mean people should let cavities develop in hopes of preventing these cancers.

"The main message is to avoid things that would shift the balance in normal microbial ecology, including overuse of antimicrobial products and smoking. Rather, you should maintain a healthy diet and good oral hygiene, by brushing and flossing," she said.

The report was published Sept. 12 in the online edition of JAMA Otolaryngology -- Head & Neck Surgery.

For the study, Tezal's team evaluated 399 patients with head and neck cancers, comparing them to 221 similar people without cancer.

The investigators found that the people with the most cavities were the ones least likely to have head and neck cancer, compared to those with the fewest cavities. Those with the most cavities had a 32 percent lower risk even after factors such as sex, marital status, smoking and alcohol use were taken into account.

"It is important to point out that missing teeth and decayed filled teeth, a widely used measure of tooth decay, were not associated with head and neck cancers," Tezal said.

Cavities are caused by lactic acid produced by bacteria such as streptococci, lactobacilli, actinomycetes and bifidobacteria, the same kinds of bacteria used in yogurt production, Tezal said.

"These bacteria have important roles in digestion, as well as in local mucosal and systemic immunity, and their reduction has been associated with chronic inflammatory diseases, allergies, obesity and cancer," she said.

Tezal said these bacteria could be a key to preventing some head and neck cancers.

"We could think of dental cavities as a collateral damage, and develop strategies to reduce their risk while preserving the beneficial effects of the lactic acid bacteria," she said.

However, Dr. Joel Epstein, a diplomat of the American Board of Oral Medicine who was not involved with the study, said its "limitations are many." Among these were the small study size and focus on current cavities only.

"Tooth loss early in life is typically related to cavities and trauma, and late due to periodontal disease, and this was not assessed in the study," said Epstein, a consultant with the division of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at the City of Hope, in Duarte, Calif.

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

Get the latest Oral Health newsletter delivered to your inbox!


or
Answer:
Never
(0)
Good
(1-3)
Better
(4-6)
Best
(7)

You are currently

Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

close up of woman sticking out tongue
Sores, discoloration, bumps and more.
toothbrushes
10 secrets to a brighter smile.
 
Veneer smile
Before and after.
Woman checking her bite in mirror
Why dental care is important.
 

Woman dissatisfied with granola bar
Slideshow
woman with jaw pain
Quiz
 
eroded front teeth
Slideshow
brushing teeth
Video
 

Variety shades of tea
Slideshow
mouth and dental instruments
Article
 
Closeup of a happy young guy brushing his teeth
Tool
womans smile
Video