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Weird Dental History Highlight: “Tooth Worms”

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN getting cavities as long as there have been people, and people before modern dentistry had some strange theories about what was causing them. A popular one believed around the world for thousands of years was the idea of “tooth worms.”

Ancient Sumeria Got the Tooth Worms Ball Rolling

As far back as 5000 B.C., tooth worms were listed in Sumerian texts as being a reason for tooth decay. They’re also mentioned in ancient Chinese scripts from 1500 B.C. in text carved from bone. People in the Roman Empire and medieval Europe also believed in tooth worms, which were said to gnaw at the teeth and live in the gums and cavities.

Why Was the Tooth Worms Theory So Common?

There are a few theories about why people all over the world believed cavities were caused by tooth worms:

  • Guinea worms in drinking water, which people would have seen and may have incorrectly connected to tooth problems
  • The worm-like structures of dental roots, which could be mistaken for worms by people who didn’t know better
  • Henbane seed treatments, in which a person would inhale the fumes of burned henbane seeds. Ironically, the ash of the burned seeds looks like worms, and the plant’s narcotic effects would relieve tooth pain. People may have drawn the wrong conclusions.

Other Cavity Myths

Over the ages, people have attributed cavities to a variety of other causes:

  • Chemical agents
  • Defective saliva
  • Inflammed jaw bones
  • Sudden changes in temperature
  • Injuries (this one can be true; a tooth cracked by injury is vulnerable to infection)

How Cavities Actually Form

Thanks to modern dentistry, we know that the culprit behind tooth decay isn’t worms but dental plaque, which is a mixture of bacteria, acids, and food debris mixed with saliva. As it builds up, it erodes the outer layer of a tooth, creating tiny holes called cavities. If the bacteria reach the pulp at the center of the tooth, the tooth will become infected and possibly abscessed, which involves swelling and severe tooth pain.

How to Prevent Cavities

Far from the henbane treatments of old, as modern dental health professionals, we can recommend good dental hygiene habits that will actually help prevent cavities, including:

  • Twice-daily brushing with a soft-bristled toothbrush and a fluoride toothpaste
  • Daily flossing (use floss picks or a water flosser if traditional floss is difficult for you)
  • Limiting your sugar intake (especially from soda and fruit juice, which are loaded with sugar and acid)
  • Scheduling regular dental cleanings and exams

What’s the Takeaway?

As fun as it is to learn about old, debunked dental health practices, the takeaway is that tooth worms are a myth. Dentists have known this for centuries, and we know the real causes of tooth decay that we should avoid and fight against. Keeping up with your daily dental hygiene habits and dentist visits twice a year are the best ways to protect your oral health.

We love helping our patients maintain healthy smiles!

Top image used under CC0 Public Domain license. Image cropped and modified from original.
The content on this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.