Maybe you’ve heard of this microscopic menace and maybe you haven’t, but for centuries the idea of a tooth worm--a creepy, crawly oral invader responsible for cavities and toothaches--held fast in many cultures. Today, this sounds less like a plausible fact and more like a gnarly sci-fi plot point. In case it wasn’t already, let’s just make this abundantly clear: there’s no such thing as tooth worm! So how did this notion slither into society in the first place?
Origins of the myth
There is no clear consensus regarding the origin of the tooth worm, but it found its way into the collective imaginations of several ancient cultures. In a 1999 study for the medical journal Clinical Oral Investigations, which is arguably the definitive account of this myth, researchers cite ancient Egypt as one of the earliest sources of the legend.
But the tooth worm also surfaced in accounts of the Roman Empire's latter eras, as well as in Germany during the Middle Ages. Florentine scholar Nicolo Falcucci mentioned them in the late fourteenth century as a cause of dental caries, thinking the worms were parasites.
Beliefs regarding their appearance varied: In England, people thought tooth worms looked like miniature eels, while some Germans thought they were not actual worms but a "viscous lymph squeezed out of the blocked pores of the teeth." The apparent cure for this condition was fumigation of the aching tooth with smoke from various burnt seeds and herbs.
The great debunking
As early as 1728, during the initial years of the Enlightenment, savvy oral health experts worked to take a more scientific and less superstitious approach to understanding the cause of cavities and dental decay. Pioneering French dentist Pierre Fauchard posited that a variety of different internal and external factors caused caries and cavities in a book published at that time, and his conclusion gradually spread.
Truth stranger than fiction
Despite advances in scientific understanding, some people doggedly held onto a belief in tooth worms. Additionally, an entirely factual incident just a few years ago added a little modern mystery to the myth.
In 2009, a team at the University of Maryland Dental School caught some startling imagery within a dissected molar using an electron microscope. They found tiny cylindrical structures extending from the tubules of teeth, some as long as nine micrometers, and the things actually looked pretty wormy.
While the researchers categorically stated that these structures weren't worms and that they didn’t show any signs of harming the teeth, they also didn't know what their new discoveries were. Odd though that may be, you can rest assured that tooth worms have only ever existed in overactive imaginations and are not backed up by actual science.