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Tooth Decay - Topic Overview

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This topic provides information on tooth decay and cavities. If you are looking for information on:

  • Gum disease, see the topic Gum Disease.
  • Toothaches, see the topic Toothache and Gum Problems.
  • Dental checkups and how to care for your teeth, see the topic Basic Dental Care.

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay is the process that results in a cavity (dental caries). It occurs when bacteria in your mouth make acids that eat away at a tooth. If not treated, tooth decay can cause pain, infection, and tooth loss.

See pictures of a tooth and tooth decay .

You can easily prevent tooth decay by brushing and flossing your teeth regularly, seeing your dentist for teeth cleaning and checkups, and avoiding foods that are high in sugar.

What causes tooth decay?

The combination of bacteria and food causes tooth decay. A clear, sticky substance called plaque that contains bacteria is always forming on your teeth and gums. As the bacteria feed on the sugars in the food you eat, they make acids. The acids attack the teeth for 20 minutes or more after eating. Over a period of time, these acids destroy tooth enamel, resulting in tooth decay.

What are the symptoms?

Tooth decay usually does not cause symptoms until you have a cavity or an infected tooth. When this occurs, a toothache is the most common symptom.

How is tooth decay diagnosed?

Your dentist diagnoses tooth decay by:

  • Asking questions about your past dental and medical problems and care.
  • Examining your teeth, using a pointed tool and a small mirror.
  • Taking X-rays of your teeth and mouth.

How is it treated?

Treatment for tooth decay depends on how bad it is. You may be able to reverse slight tooth decay by using fluoride. To fix cavities caused by mild tooth decay, your dentist will fill the cavities with another substance (fillings). For more severe tooth decay, you may need a crown or root canal. In extreme cases, your dentist may have to remove the tooth.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about tooth decay:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

  • How is tooth decay treated?
  • What is a filling?
  • What is a root canal?
  • What is a crown?
  • How is a tooth pulled?
  • What if I'm scared to go to the dentist?
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 19, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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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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