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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:

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay camera.gif is damage that occurs when germs (bacteria) in your mouth make acids that eat away at a tooth. It can lead to a hole in the tooth, called a cavity. If not treated, tooth decay can cause pain, infection, and tooth loss.

A tooth camera.gif has three layers.

  • The hard outer layer is called enamel.
  • The middle layer is called dentin.
  • The center of the tooth is called the pulp. It contains nerves and blood vessels.

The more layers that are affected by decay, the worse the damage.

What causes tooth decay?

Bacteria and food can cause tooth decay. A clear, sticky substance called plaque is always forming on your teeth and gums. Plaque contains bacteria that feed on the sugars in the food you eat.

As the bacteria feed, they make acids. The acids attack the teeth for 20 minutes or more after you eat. Over time, these acids destroy tooth enamel, causing tooth decay.

Things that make you more likely to have tooth decay include:

  • Not brushing and flossing your teeth regularly and not seeing a dentist for checkups and cleanings.
  • Eating foods that are high in sugar and other carbohydrates, which feed the bacteria in your mouth.
  • Not getting enough fluoride. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by making teeth more resistant to acids produced by plaque. Fluoride is added to most public water supplies.
  • Not having enough saliva. Saliva washes away food and harmful sugars, so it helps protect your teeth from decay. A dry mouth may be caused by a condition such as xerostomia or Sjögren's syndrome, by taking certain medicines, or by breathing through your mouth. Older adults are more likely to have a dry mouth.
  • Having diabetes.
  • Smoking, using spit (smokeless) tobacco, or breathing secondhand smoke.

Children, whose teeth are still growing, are more likely than adults to have tooth decay. This is because the minerals in new teeth are not very strong and are easier for acids to eat away.

Even babies can be at risk for tooth decay. Babies who are put to bed with a bottle can get "bottle mouth camera.gif"—tooth decay caused by the sugar in milk, formula, or juice. Babies aren't born with decay-causing bacteria in their mouths. But they can get bacteria from adults who share spoons, forks, or other utensils with them.

What are the symptoms?

Tooth decay usually doesn't cause symptoms until you have a cavity or an infected tooth. When this happens, you may have:

  • A toothache, which is the most common symptom.
  • Swelling in your gums near a sore tooth. This can be a sign of severe tooth decay or an abscessed tooth camera.gif.
  • Bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth.
  • White, gray, brown, or black spots on your teeth.

If you have a toothache, see a dentist. Sometimes the pain will go away for a while, but the tooth decay will keep growing. If you don't get treatment, your cavities could get worse and your tooth could die.

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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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