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Dental Health and Cavities

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Cavities are what you get from tooth decay -- damage to the tooth. Tooth decay can affect both the outer coating of a tooth (called enamel) and the inner layer (called dentin).

What causes decay? When foods with carbohydrates like bread, cereal, milk, soda, fruit, cake, or candy stay on your teeth. The bacteria in your mouth turn them into acids. The bacteria, acid, food debris, and your saliva combine to form plaque, which clings to the teeth. The acids in plaque dissolve the enamel, creating holes called cavities.

Anatomy of the Teeth

The teeth are the hardest substances in the human body. Besides being essential for chewing, the teeth play an important role in speech. Parts of the teeth include:

• Enamel: The hardest, white outer part of the tooth. Enamel is mostly made of calcium phosphate, a rock-hard mineral.
• Dentin: A layer underlying the enamel. Dentin is made of living cells, which secrete a hard mineral substance.
• Pulp: The softer, living inner structure of teeth. Blood vessels and nerves run through the pulp of the teeth.

Read more about the parts of the teeth and conditions that affect them.

WebMD's Teeth Anatomy Page

Who Gets Cavities?

Many people think only children get cavities, but changes in your mouth as you age make them an adult problem, too. As you get older, your gums pull away from your teeth. They can also pull away because of gum disease. This exposes the roots of your teeth to plaque. And if you eat a lot of sugary or high-carb foods, you’re more likely to get cavities.

Older adults sometimes get decay around the edges of fillings. Seniors often have a lot of dental work because they didn't get fluoride or good oral care when they were kids. Over the years, these fillings can weaken teeth and break. Bacteria gather in the gaps and cause decay.

How Do I Know If I Have One?

Your dentist finds cavities during a regular dental checkup. He’ll probe your teeth, looking for soft spots, or use X-rays to check between your teeth.

If you’ve had a cavity for a while, you might get a toothache, especially after you eat or drink something sweet, hot, or cold. Sometimes you can see pits or holes in your teeth.

How Are They Treated?

Treatment depends on how bad the cavity is. Most often, the dentist removes the decayed portion of your tooth with a drill. He fills in the hole with a filling made of either silver alloy, gold, porcelain, or a composite resin. These materials are safe.

Some people have raised concerns about mercury-based fillings called amalgams, but the American Dental Association, the FDA, and other public health agencies say they are safe. Allergies to fillings are rare.

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How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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