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What is tooth decay?
Tooth decay 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 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.
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
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 many 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 "—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 .
- Bad breath
or a bad taste in your mouth.
- White, gray, brown, or black spots on
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.