Changing paradigms in concepts on dental caries: consequences for oral health care

Caries Res. May-Jun 2004;38(3):182-91. doi: 10.1159/000077753.


Kuhn proposed in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that the theoretical framework of a science (paradigm) determines how each generation of researchers construes a causal sequence. Paradigm change is infrequent and revolutionary; thereafter previous knowledge and ideas become partially redundant. This paper discusses two paradigms central to cariology. The first concerns the most successful caries-preventive agent: fluoride. When it was thought that fluoride had to be present during tooth mineralisation to 'improve' the biological apatite and the 'caries resistance' of the teeth, systemic fluoride administration was necessary for maximum benefit. Caries reduction therefore had to be balanced against increasing dental fluorosis. The 'caries resistance' concept was shown to be erroneous 25 years ago, but the new paradigm is not yet fully adopted in public health dentistry, so we still await real breakthroughs in more effective use of fluorides for caries prevention. The second paradigm is that caries is a transmittable, infectious disease: even one caused by specific microorganisms. This paradigm would require caries prevention by vaccination, but there is evidence that caries is not a classical infectious disease. Rather it results from an ecological shift in the tooth-surface biofilm, leading to a mineral imbalance between plaque fluid and tooth and hence net loss of tooth mineral. Therefore, caries belongs to common 'complex' or 'multifactorial' diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, in which many genetic, environmental and behavioural risk factors interact. The paper emphasises how these paradigm changes raise new research questions which need to be addressed to make caries prevention and treatment more cost-effective.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biofilms
  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Cariostatic Agents / pharmacology
  • Cariostatic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Dental Caries / microbiology*
  • Dental Caries / prevention & control*
  • Dental Enamel Solubility / drug effects
  • Dental Plaque / chemistry
  • Dental Plaque / microbiology
  • Dental Research
  • Fluorides / pharmacology
  • Fluorides / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Streptococcus mutans / pathogenicity


  • Cariostatic Agents
  • Fluorides