Tooth decay is one of the most common dental health problems in children and adults. You can prevent and reverse tooth decay if you catch it early.
What Is Tooth Decay?
Teeth have a protective coating on their surface called enamel. Bacteria inside your mouth feed on sugars you eat. When they break down the sugars, they release acids that eat away at the enamel. The mix of bacteria, acids and sugars is dental plaque.
Dental plaque grows on the surface of and between your teeth. It gives your teeth a "fuzzy" coating, which you may feel with your tongue. Over time, the plaque hardens into tartar, a material that irritates your gums and is hard to remove.
The bacteria and plaque continue breaking down the enamel and reach deeper into your tooth. This creates cavities, or dental caries.
Under the hard enamel, your teeth have more delicate tissue called dentin and pulp. These tissues have sensitive nerves and help maintain the nutrients in your teeth. Untreated cavities grow deeper into these tissues over time.
What Causes Tooth Decay?
Hygiene habits and medical conditions can lead to cavities and tooth decay.
- Not brushing and flossing regularly
- Frequently snacking
- Eating lots of sugary foods
- Eating carbohydrate-rich foods like bread
- Dry mouth from medication
- Acid reflux
- Not getting enough fluoride
- Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia
You can get rid of the plaque that causes cavities. You can also reverse early cavities with the right treatment. You can’t reverse a cavity once it gets deep enough.
Symptoms of Tooth Decay
Cavities often don’t cause any symptoms when they’re beginning to grow. As they get deeper, they may cause:
- Tooth pain when eating or drinking something hot or cold
- Tooth pain when eating or drinking something sugary
- Grey, yellow, bright white, or brown spots on your teeth
- Holes you can feel or see in your teeth
- Swelling around your teeth or jaw
- Bad breath
- Unusual taste in your mouth
Your molars, or back teeth, are the most common places to get cavities.
Treatments for Tooth Decay
Fillings. Dentists can fill cavities if they’re small enough. The dentist will drill into the cavity to remove the decayed area. A safe material called amalgam then fills the hole. The bacteria won’t be able to reach deeper into your tooth.
Dental fillings usually take less than an hour. The dentist will numb your mouth beforehand.
Special toothpaste. A dentist can prescribe you with high-fluoride toothpaste that can help reverse early cavities. Fluoride is a mineral that helps protect your enamel. It rebuilds minerals in your enamel after dental plaque reduces them.
Your enamel can repair itself from a cavity that doesn’t reach all the way through it. Fluoride helps with this repair.
Root canal. Root canals treat deeper cavities. They’re necessary when tooth decay reaches the pulp inside a tooth.
Endodontists specialize in the pulp and nerves in your teeth. During a root canal, an endodontist will remove the damaged pulp. Then, they’ll fill the cavity like a filling. You may need a dental crown to protect from later damage.
Tooth removal. Decay can eventually damage a tooth beyond repair. A dentist might recommend removing a decayed tooth. You can replace it with an artificial tooth or implant.
Preventing Tooth Decay
Prevention is the most effective way to reverse tooth decay before you need a filling or other treatment. To prevent tooth decay:
See the dentist regularly. Visit the dentist twice a year for a checkup and professional cleaning. The dentist can find cavities that you may not have noticed. This can keep them from growing.
Practice good dental hygiene. Take care of your teeth at home. Brush your teeth twice a day with toothpaste containing fluoride. Floss between your teeth to get rid of dental plaque before it hardens into tartar.
Get sealants. Sealants are a thin protective coating a dentist can apply to your teeth. They help to protect your teeth from plaque buildup.
Risks of Tooth Decay
Left untreated, tooth decay can cause serious health problems.
Tooth infection. The bacteria inside a deep cavity enter the pulp in a tooth. This can cause an infection, or abscess, that won’t go away on its own. Tooth infections can lead to sepsis and even death if they’re not treated.
Tooth loss. Tooth decay and infection can cause teeth to become loose and fall out. Missing teeth can affect how you eat and speak. Your other teeth may also shift out of place after you lose a tooth.