Humans have been getting cavities since ancient times. Before the practice of modern dentistry, some people thought cavities were caused by worms inside the teeth. The theory was widely believed around the world.

The idea persisted for thousands of years. However, advancements in dental medicine have proved that tooth worms aren’t real.

Tooth decay is caused by dental plaque. Plaque consists of saliva, bacteria, acids, and food particles. As plaque builds up and erodes the outer layer of your teeth, tooth decay occurs. The result is cavities, also called dental caries.

Yet, the belief of tooth worms still exists today. Read on to learn about the myth and how it might have started.

The concept of tooth worms dates back to 5000 B.C. In a Sumerian text from this time, tooth worms are listed as the reason behind tooth decay.

Tooth worms were also mentioned in ancient Chinese scripts from 1500 B.C. The text, which was carved in bone, describes a tooth worm attacking the mouth and teeth.

People in the Roman Empire and the Middle ages also thought tooth worms were real.

In general, tooth worms were said to gnaw the teeth and cause decay. They were also thought to exist in gums and cavities.

There are many possible reasons why people believed in tooth worms. Potential theories include:

Water infected with Guinea worms

One theory is that people were actually seeing Guinea worms, or Druncunculus medinensis, from infected water. The pregnant female Guinea worm can release more than 500,000 young worms when it’s in cold water.

Plus, Guinea worm lives on cyclopoid crustaceans, which is often found in drinking wells.

If people were drinking or using well water, they might have witnessed the Guinea worm expelling baby worms.

Worm-like structures in the teeth

Another possible reason is the cylindrical structures in human teeth. According to researchers at the University of Maryland Dental School, there are tiny, hollow worm-like structures attached to the tubules in a human tooth.

Scientists don’t completely understand what they are. Ancient people might have mistaken them for worms.

Henbane seed treatments

In Medieval England, tooth worms were treated with the fumes of burned henbane seeds. Henbane is a plant that was used for medicinal purposes.

During the treatment, the seeds were heated with charcoal. The person with cavities inhaled the fumes.

Ironically, the ash of burned henbane seeds looked like worms. The plant also has narcotic properties that relieved the tooth pain. This likely supported people’s belief of tooth worms.

Throughout ancient times, people also believed cavities were caused by:

  • chemical agents
  • defective saliva
  • inflammation of alveolar bone (part of the jaw that holds the teeth)
  • sudden temperature changes
  • mechanical injuries

Thanks to modern dentistry, we now know the real cause of tooth decay.

Food substances, bacteria, and saliva combine to form plaque that sticks to your teeth. Tooth decay starts when sugars and starches are left on your teeth for a long time. Bacteria in the plaque eat the sugary and starchy foods, which forms acids.

These acids in plaque erode your enamel, the hard outer layer of your teeth. This forms tiny holes called cavities.

Over time, the acids and bacteria erode through your enamel and start to damage the dentin, the tissue beneath your enamel. If they reach the pulp, or the middle of your tooth, you can develop an infection. This causes severe swelling and tooth pain.

To prevent cavities and tooth decay, it’s important to practice good dental hygiene. This includes:

The idea of tooth worms is an ancient myth. It’s been proven that worms aren’t the reason behind tooth decay and cavities.

The real cause is bacteria and acids, which form plaque on the teeth.

You can prevent tooth decay by practicing good oral hygiene and getting routine professional cleanings. If you think you have a cavity, see a dentist.