Tooth Decay 101: What You Need to Know

Tooth decay can happen to the best of us. It’s rare for even the most disciplined amongst us to go their entire lives without at least one or two pesky cavities. Cavities are caused when bacteria in the mouth produce acid that wears away at your enamel, leading to pain, infection and tooth loss if left untreated.
And while that might sound kind of scary, we’ve got what you need to know about the causes of tooth decay, how to identify it as well as what might put you at a higher risk, treatment options and tips for the prevention of future decay.

Causes of Cavities

Plaque, a sticky sort of bacteria, forms constantly over the teeth. When you eat or drink things that cling to your teeth – especially sugars, starches and carbohydrates – they combine with the plaque to form an acid, which wears away at the enamel of your teeth and cause you to lose the minerals in its protective surface.
The stickiness of the plaque keeps the acid in contact with your teeth and once the enamel is weakened and destroyed, it leaves a cavity in its place.

Signs and Symptoms of Tooth Decay

Early tooth decay typically goes without much notice, which is why it’s important to visit the dentist every six months for a cleaning and x-rays. Often cavities that are just getting started can only be seen on an x-ray or may appear to the naked eye as a white spot on the surface of your tooth. Over time, this spot can darken to a brown or black spot of decay.
During your dental exams, the dentist uses a tool to gently check the surfaces of your teeth for any soft or sticky areas that can indicate tooth decay.
If decay develops between appointments, you might find yourself with an uncomfortable sensitivity to sweets, hot or cold. As if toothaches weren’t bad enough on their own, when the protective enamel is worn away, the inner structures of the tooth can become exposed and lead to infection and abscesses.
If you experience any of these discomforts, keep aware of it and discuss it with your dentist at your next appointment. If you experience pain, set up an appointment for an exam as soon as possible.

Tooth Decay Risk Factors

In addition to certain foods and drinks, a number of factors can put patients at an increased risk for tooth decay, including:
  • Age – While cavities are the most common in children, older adults are also at a higher risk. As we age, our teeth can wear down and our gums may recede, revealing some of the roots. The surface that protects the root, called cementum, is not as strong as the enamel and is more susceptible to decay.
  • Dry Mouth – Many prescriptions list dry mouth as a side-effect and while it’s uncomfortable, it can also be damaging to your smile. Teeth rely on saliva to wash away cavity-causing bacteria. So when the mouth is dry, that plaque and acid are left to sit on your teeth. Some medical conditions, radiation to the head or neck and certain chemotherapy drugs can also reduce saliva production and put you at risk for cavities.
  • Worn fillings or dental devices – Over time, existing dental fillings may wear down and develop rough edges and crevices. It becomes easier for plaque to build up and makes it difficult to adequately remove with daily brushing. Dental prosthetics can also degrade over time and may lead to decay beginning underneath them.
  • Heartburn – Even though enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, it can only take so much acid. For patients suffering from more than occasional heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the acid reflux can wear away your enamel more quickly. See your primary care physician about addressing your heartburn to protect your smile.
  • Eating Disorders – The purging associated with bulimia can lead to significant tooth erosion from repeat exposure to harsh stomach acids. Eating disorders can also interfere with saliva production.

Tooth Decay Treatment

Luckily, treating tooth decay and cavities is quick and easy. You’ll be numbed and the dentist will carefully remove the decayed tooth tissue, and then restore the tooth with silver-colored amalgam or tooth-colored composite filling material. This is typically a very quick procedure and goes a long way for eliminating decay.
For tooth decay that has progressed to expose the root or cause an abscess, a root canal may be needed. Talk to your dentist at your appointment about what your restorative options may be.

Tooth Decay Prevention

Healthy habits go a long way in the prevention of most tooth decay and tooth loss. Brushing twice a day for two minutes at a time and flossing once a day is the foundation of a healthy smile.

A few ways to help prevent tooth decay:

And as always, keep up-to-date on visiting the dentist twice a year for cleanings and you’ll stay ahead of the curve when it comes to tooth decay.

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