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Study Tied Tooth Cavities to a Reduced Risk of Head and Neck Cancer

Update Date: Sep 13, 2013 12:09 PM EDT

Cavities, which are more commonly diagnosed in young children, are tiny holes that develop in teeth due to poor dental hygiene and the consumption of sugary foods. Even though cavities are very common and easily treatable, they can be very painful, causing toothaches and even severe tooth decay if treatment is delayed. Although cavities are understood as a dental problem, a new study is reporting that cavities might play a larger role in the development of cancer in the head or neck. According to the researchers, people with more cavities might have a smaller risk of getting some head and neck cancers.

"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. "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."

Tezal's team analyzed head and neck cancers in 399 patients and compared their analyses to 221 similar adults who were cancer-free. From this comparison, they concluded that people with most cavities appeared to have a reduced risk of head and neck cancer. After the researchers accounted for variables such as sex, marital status, smoking and alcohol intake, the researchers calculated that people with more cavities were 32 percent less likely to get head or neck cancer.

The researchers reasoned that the bacteria that are present when there are cavities could help lower one's risk of head and neck cancer. Researchers know that cavities are caused by lactic acid, which is made by streptococci lactobacilli, actinomycetes and bifidobacteria. These bacteria are responsible for maintaining good digestion and help with reducing chronic inflammatory diseases, allergies, cancer and obesity. Since these bacteria can cause cavities, the presence of cavities could indicate a reduced risk of head and neck cancer. However, the researchers explained that they are not recommending people to purposely leave cavities untreated or try to create cavities in order to reduce their risk of cancer. The researchers and critics agree that more research needs to be done to examine this relationship between cavities and cancer.

"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 according to Medical Xpress.

The study was published in JAMA Otolaryngology.

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