Tooth decay (also known as dental caries) is the result of bacteria in your mouth breaking down carbohydrates and forming acids (lactic acid). These acids destroy the hard tissue of your teeth (enamel) and create small holes called cavities. If cavities are not treated, they can lead to more serious problems such as tooth loss.
The most common types of tooth decay are cavities and dental caries. Cavities are holes in your teeth that form when bacteria in your mouth feed on sugar, starch, or other food particles. The bacteria produce acids that attack the enamel and dentin layers of your teeth.
Tooth decay is a preventable disease. By eating healthy foods and taking good care of your teeth, you can avoid having cavities. If you already have a cavity, there are ways to treat it without having to remove the affected tooth.
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What is Tooth Decay?
Tooth decay is a common problem in the United States. In fact, over 90% of adults over the age of 20 have some form of tooth decay.
Tooth decay occurs when plaque (plaque is a sticky substance made up of food particles and bacteria) attaches to your teeth. Plaque turns into tartar (tartar is hardened plaque) when it’s not removed by brushing and flossing. Over time, the acid produced by plaque erodes away at the enamel and dentin layers of your teeth, creating cavities.
Tooth decay is also known as dental caries, which means “to eat into.” It occurs when bacteria in your mouth break down food particles on your teeth and produce acid that causes the soft tissue inside your teeth (dental pulp) to dissolve. This allows the bacteria to penetrate into the tooth.
Dental caries can affect any surface of a tooth, including the biting surfaces (incisal edges), chewing surfaces (occlusal edges), roots, or even the root canal system inside the tooth. In most cases, it affects only one tooth or a few teeth at a time. Dental caries can also occur on healthy teeth if you don’t practice good oral hygiene habits — such as brushing and flossing regularly — which allows bacteria to build up on your teeth and produce acids that erode enamel.
Signs and Symptoms of Tooth Decay
It can be a sign of poor dental hygiene or a symptom of an underlying health problem. The early stages of tooth decay often have no symptoms, but later stages can cause pain and infection.
The first symptom of a decaying tooth is pain or sensitivity to hot or cold stimuli when eating certain foods. You may also notice a change in the appearance of your tooth, such as discoloration or chipping.
If you have a cavity in one or more of your teeth, you’ll usually notice it because the affected tooth will be painful. Pain can also be caused by:
- A deep cavity (which has reached the pulp).
- A large cavity that has spread into the surrounding bone tissue.
- Cavities between two teeth where there is no chewing surface between them (called interproximal caries).
If left untreated, tooth decay can result in the loss of bone tissue that supports your teeth. This ultimately, leads to tooth loss.
Tooth Decay Stages and Treatments
Tooth decay is a common dental condition that can affect both children and adults. If you have a cavity, your dentist will remove it, fill it and then seal off the tooth, so it doesn’t get infected again.
Tooth decay treatments vary depending on the stage of decay, how deep it goes, and whether it’s affecting other teeth.
Stage 1: Early decay
In the early stages of tooth decay, plaque has begun to form on your teeth but hasn’t eaten through the enamel yet. You might notice white or yellow spots on your teeth. You may even feel rough spots when you run your tongue over them.
In these cases, your dentist can perform a fluoride treatment to strengthen your enamel and prevent future decay. This treatment typically lasts between 1-2 years.
Stage 2: Moderate decay
At this stage, the decay goes deeper into enamel and dentin. You’ll likely see brown or black spots on your teeth. They may even feel rough or gritty when you chew food. There are several tooth decay treatments at this stage, including:
- Fillings: A filling is placed into the cavity to restore the tooth’s function and durability.
- Crown: To protect the tooth from further damage or infection (or both).
Stage 3: Advanced decay
In this stage, decalcification has reached deeper parts of the tooth. At this point, there is little or no remaining healthy tooth tissue left at the top surface of the tooth root.
The only other option at this point is the replacement of affected teeth with dental implants or bridges.
If you see your dentist twice a year, it’s likely they’ll catch signs of tooth decay before it progresses. The easiest (and most affordable) treatment options would be as follows:
- Step 1: A deep fluoride cleaning
- Step 2: Filling for cavities
- Step 3: A crown o restore function
- Step 4: Tooth extraction and root canal therapy, followed by dentures, bridges, or dental implants.