Background and overview: Dental caries is a bacterially based disease. When it progresses, acid produced by bacterial action on dietary fermentable carbohydrates diffuses into the tooth and dissolves the carbonated hydroxyapatite mineral--a process called demineralization. Pathological factors including acidogenic bacteria (mutans streptococci and lactobacilli), salivary dysfunction, and dietary carbohydrates are related to caries progression. Protective factors--which include salivary calcium, phosphate and proteins, salivary flow, fluoride in saliva, and antibacterial components or agents--can balance, prevent or reverse dental caries.
Conclusions: Caries progression or reversal is determined by the balance between protective and pathological factors. Fluoride, the key agent in battling caries, works primarily via topical mechanisms: inhibition of demineralization, enhancement of remineralization and inhibition of bacterial enzymes.
Clinical implications: Fluoride in drinking water and in fluoride-containing products reduces caries via these topical mechanisms. Antibacterial therapy must be used to combat a high bacterial challenge. For practical caries management and prevention or reversal of dental caries, the sum of the preventive factors must outweigh the pathological factors.