Tooth Decay

Tooth decay, also called dental caries or simply a cavity, is an infection that creates destruction and demineralization of the hard tissues in the mouth. If demineralization surpasses saliva and other remineralisation factors from fluoridated and calcium toothpastes, these hard tissues can break down and produce tooth decay. If left untreated, the disease can lead to tooth loss, severe pain, and infection. There are numerous treatments available however, that can restore teeth to proper function, form, and aesthetics.

Symptoms

Symptoms generally do not occur until you have an infected tooth or cavity. The most common symptom is a severe toothache. You might also experience a foul taste in your mouth or have bad breath. There may be gray, white, black, or brown spots visible on the teeth or you may have loose fillings. The toothache may become worse when you eat cold or hot foods, eat sweets, drink cold, hot, or acidic liquids (citrus drinks for example), chew gum or food, brush your teeth, or breathe in cold air. Severe tooth decay may cause an abscess to form in the bone at the base of your tooth. This abscess may cause symptoms such as swollen glands, fever, a deep and throbbing pain, or a swollen jaw. Tooth decay might also cause pain when you bite down and release pus around the infected tooth.

Causes

Tooth decay is caused by a combination of food and bacteria. Plaque, a clear, sticky substance which contains bacteria, is constantly forming on your gums and teeth. This bacteria feeds on sugar from the foods you eat, and produce acids, which attacks the teeth after you have finished eating. These acids will destroy tooth enamel over a period of time, resulting in tooth decay. Tooth decay is more likely to occur if you do not take care of your teeth properly. This includes not flossing daily and not brushing your teeth after you eat or twice each day. Tooth decay is also more likely to occur if you eat foods that contain large amounts of sugar. If tooth decay is not treated, the acid and bacteria move to the inner tooth material (called pulp) that contains blood vessels and nerves. The bacteria causes the pulp to become irritated which can potentially lead to serious complications.

Prevention

Good dental and oral hygiene can help you avoid tooth decay and/or cavities. It is important to brush a minimum of two times each day, and if you can, after every meal. Brushing after drinking or eating helps you keep your teeth clean and removes bacteria and acid. You will also want to rinse out your mouth frequently, preferably with fluoride if possible. It is important to visit your dentist on a regular basis to receive professional tooth cleanings. These tooth cleanings help remove plaque and tartar that may not have been removed at home. You may also want to look into dental sealants. A dental sealant seals off the chewing surface of the back teeth that collects food and makes it more likely for you to get a cavity. Eating healthy foods, such as fresh fruits, cheese, and vegetables, can also help protect your tooth from tooth decay, as can avoiding frequent snacking. The American Dental Association provides more information.

Treatment

There are many treatments available to help stop tooth decay as well as fix cavities. At the beginning stages of tooth decay, fluoride treatments are administered.

Fluoride treatments help restore your tooth’s enamel. If the decay has progressed beyond the early stages, a filling is the main treatment option. A filling replaces decayed areas of your teeth after the damage becomes permanent. The decayed part of your tooth is drilled away by your dentist, and the gap is filled with the filling. If you have weakened teeth or extensive decay, a crown may be installed. It is a custom-fitted covering which replaces your tooth’s natural crown. If decay reaches your tooth’s inner material, a root canal may be required. This is a painful procedure that replaces the tooth pulp with a filing. For teeth that are severely decayed, removal might be the only remaining option.