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Tooth Decay - Topic Overview

How is tooth decay diagnosed?

To diagnose tooth decay, your dentist will:

  • Ask questions about your past dental and medical problems and care.
  • Check your teeth, using a pointed tool and a small mirror.
  • Take X-rays of your teeth and mouth to find tooth decay that can't be seen with the eyes alone.

How is it treated?

The best treatment for tooth decay depends on how severe it is. If tooth decay is caught early, before a cavity forms, you may be able to stop it by brushing with fluoride toothpaste or getting fluoride treatments. That's one good reason to see your dentist on a regular basis.

If the decay has eaten through the enamel, you may need one or more of these treatments:

  • A filling if a cavity has formed. After the decay is removed, the dentist uses a material to fill the hole and restore the tooth to its original shape.
  • A crown if the decay is severe and your tooth is badly damaged. A crown, or cap, is a man-made replacement for part of a tooth.
  • A root canal if the pulp of your tooth is infected. A root canal removes the diseased pulp of a tooth.
  • Removal (extraction) if the root of the tooth is severely damaged. The dentist may replace the tooth with a bridge camera.gif or an implant.

If you have pain and swelling, you can take steps at home to relieve it.

  • Use an ice pack on the outside of your cheek. Don't use heat.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

How can you prevent tooth decay?

You can prevent most tooth decay with these tips:

  • Take good care of your teeth. Brush your teeth twice a day, in the morning and before bedtime. Use fluoride toothpaste. Floss once a day.
  • See your dentist for checkups once or twice a year so problems can be found before they're serious.
  • Don't snack before bedtime. Food left on the teeth overnight is more likely to cause cavities.
  • Avoid foods that have a lot of sugar, especially sugar-coated cereals, desserts, and sticky foods like taffy and raisins. The longer sugar is in contact with your teeth, the more damage it will do.

If you have children, get them regular dental checkups, and take steps early to prevent tooth decay.

  • To help prevent baby bottle tooth decay, don't put your baby to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, or juice.
  • To help prevent the spread of decay-causing bacteria, don't feed your baby from utensils you have used.
  • Teach your children to brush their teeth in the morning and at night.
  • Keep your children away from tobacco smoke.
  • Ask your dentist about:
    • Fluoride supplements if your water doesn't have enough fluoride.
    • Sealants to help protect your child's teeth from decay.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 04, 2013
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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