The Legend of the Tooth Worm

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Yikes! What in the world is a “tooth worm”?

Luckily, tooth worms are in the same animal kingdom as unicorns, dragons and *snipes: Tooth worms have never existed. But anciently, dating back as far as 5,000 B.C., people believed the false notion that the unmistakable pain that we now recognize as a toothache was caused by a tiny tooth worm, which was thought to bore into its victims’ teeth.

Considering the awful appearance of tooth decay, which no one understood at the time, it makes sense that ancient people would suspect some small creature was the culprit for creating holes and destroying their teeth.

The degree of tooth pain was said to correspond with the worm’s amount of physical activity: For instance, if the tooth worm was moving around a lot, then the tooth pain would be severe. And if the aching had dissipated, then the tooth worm was said to be at rest.

Naturally, no one knew what tooth worms looked like, but its supposed appearance took different forms over the centuries: The British thought tooth worms looked like little eels; whereas, Germans thought the itty-bitty beast was red, blue and gray and resembled a maggot.

Remarkably, cultures across the globe maintained this false belief for centuries, even though they had no contact with one another. The legend of the infamous tooth worm continued until sometime between the 1700s and early 1900s, depending on the region.

Early Treatments for the Tooth Worm
During the Middle Ages, honey was one treatment attempted to cure tooth worms. The hurting tooth was coated in honey, and the aching victim waited with tweezers, in hopes of removing the sweet-toothed pest. This sad scenario shows the desperation of someone with a toothache: Suffering victims kept waiting in vain from about the fifth to the 15th century, but somehow, this method for treatment persisted for hundreds of years! Another common treatment method implemented during this time period was applying an onion to the patient’s ear on the same side as the hurting tooth.

The ancient Greeks used donkey’s milk as a mouthwash for strengthening the gums and teeth. And frogs were held against a person’s cheek — toothache-side, of course — in hopes of providing some relief. But weirder still, one prevalent belief was that spitting into a frog’s mouth would help a tooth worm affliction feel better!

Scarier still, sometimes a heated probe was used, and other ancient “doctors” thought the tooth’s nerve was the infamous worm itself! Consequently, the nerve would be removed, which may have serendipitously given the patient some relief, if the toothache was caused by the tooth decay affecting the nerve. And when all else failed, the tooth was extracted.

Rest assured, you don’t have to worry about the non-existent tooth worms, but beware of toothaches! The monster behind tooth pain is not worms, but the bacteria in plaque that produce acids which start to destroy enamel, a tooth’s protective coating. And if this process continues unchecked, tooth decay continues, cavities form and pain ensues.

So, protect yourself against the tooth worm by doing the following:

1. Brush your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush, twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste.
2. Floss your teeth once a day.
3. Eat well-balanced meals, limit your snacking and reduce your sugar and soda intake.
4. Visit our office for your regular checkups and cleanings.

*Incidentally, there actually is an animal called a “snipe.” It’s a bird! The common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) can be found by talented snipe-hunters throughout northern Europe and northern Asia.