Tooth decay is damage that occurs to the teeth as a result of excessive bacterial activity and if left untreated, may lead to a dental abscess or even tooth loss. Tooth decay occurs due to the activity of various bacteria found in dental plaque, which can secrete acid that destroys tooth structure by converting sugars into acid that damages the calcium in teeth. Cavities and tooth decay are considered to be some of the most common health problems worldwide. Anyone with teeth is at risk of acquiring cavities, regardless of age, including infants with newly erupted baby teeth. If cavities are not treated, they get large and affect the deeper layers of the teeth. Cavities could lead to toothaches, infection, and tooth loss, forcing a patient to seek emergency dental care. Diligent brushing, flossing, a low-sugar diet and regular dental checkups will help to keep dental cavities at bay.
What Causes Tooth Decay
Tooth decay, the damage on the tooth’s surface or enamel, may occur due to several factors:
- The mouth is full of bacteria, both the good and bad kind. When harmful bacteria combine with food particles, they form plaque, a soft, sticky film that coats the teeth. The bacteria in the plaque convert the sugars and the starch in the food you eat into acids that eat away at the calcium that makes up tooth enamel. As the plaque continues to accumulate, it may harden into tartar. In addition to causing tooth decay, the accumulation of plaque and tartar could damage your gums, causing gum disease.
- Regular brushing and flossing can help prevent the development of cavities. Toothpaste contains fluoride, which along with your saliva, replaces the minerals in the tooth enamel, helping the enamel rebuild itself. Fluoride is also available in the water you drink and other sources. The teeth constantly go through the process of losing and regaining minerals. The enamel keeps losing minerals if you do not maintain good oral hygiene due to repeated acid attacks by oral bacteria.
- Unhealthy eating habits are also a common cause of tooth decay. You are more likely to get dental cavities if you snack a lot or consume sugary foods and drinks.
You might be wondering about how to know if you have a cavity. You might notice a white spot on the tooth, usually in the area where minerals have been lost. This spot is an early sign of tooth decay. At this point, it is possible to stop and reverse the decay. If you limit your intake of sugary and starchy foods and take good care of your teeth, the enamel might be able to repair itself. However, more minerals will be lost if the tooth decay process continues. Over time, the tooth enamel will wear out, forming a dental cavity. A dental cavity, characterized by a hole in the tooth, is permanent damage that the dentist repairs using dental fillings.
Tooth Decay Risk Factors
Everyone is at risk of getting tooth decay. However, certain factors can increase the risk of getting cavities:
- Frequent sipping and Snacking – You are more prone to tooth decay if you keep sipping sugary drinks or eating sugary snacks throughout the day. The mouth bacteria convert this sugar and starch into acids that destroy the minerals within teeth. Sipping soda and other acidic beverages continually also exposes your teeth to acids directly.
- Certain Foods and Drinks – Foods that cling to the teeth for a long time increase the risk of tooth decay more than foods that are easy to wash off. These foods include dried fruit, soda, honey, ice cream, milk, dry cereal, and dry candy.
- Infant Feeding at BedTime – Baby bottles is a leading cause of rotten teeth kids. When babies are given their bedtime bottles filled with formula, milk, juice, or other sugar-containing beverages, these beverages remain on their teeth for many hours as they sleep. They feed the decay-causing bacteria, which in turn causes tooth decay, commonly known as baby bottle tooth decay. Similar damage can occur when toddlers consume such beverages from sippy cups.
- Inadequate Fluoride – Plaque forms on the teeth if you do not brush your teeth immediately after eating or drinking. The first stages of tooth decay begin with plaque accumulation. Observing proper dental hygiene through regular brushing and flossing can help you prevent tooth decay in the future.
- Improper Brushing – Plaque forms on the teeth if you do not brush your teeth immediately after eating or drinking. The first stages of tooth decay begin with plaque accumulation. Observing proper dental hygiene through regular brushing and flossing can help you prevent tooth decay in the future.
- Age – Tooth decay is most common in children, teenagers, and the elderly. With age, teeth wear down, and gum recession occurs, making you prone to tooth decay. Certain medications, commonly used by older adults, reduce saliva flow, making them prone to tooth decay.
- Worn Dental Devices and Fillings – Dental fillings (a common tooth decay treatment) and other devices may wear out over time and make you prone to tooth decay. When dental fillings wear out and develop rough edges, they encourage plaque accumulation and make plaque removal harder. If dental devices do not fit well, plaque may build up beneath them and expose you to tooth decay.
- Dry mouth – Saliva helps prevent tooth decay because it washes off food particles and plaque from your teeth. A dry mouth with minimal saliva flow puts you at a high risk of tooth decay. Certain substances found in saliva help dilute the acid produced by bacteria. Factors that most likely put you at risk of getting cavities by reducing saliva production include certain medical conditions, treatments like chemotherapy, certain medication, and radiation to the neck and head.
- Eating Disorders – Bulimia and anorexia may contribute directly to tooth erosion and cavities. Acid from the stomach from frequent vomiting or purging washes over the teeth, consequently dissolving the enamel. Certain eating disorders can also interfere with saliva production.
- Heartburn – Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) and heartburn can cause acid reflux, making acid flow into your mouth and wear the enamel. This damage increases your risk for tooth decay. Dentists often advise patients to consult their doctors to find out if acid reflux is the cause of their dental cavities.
Be Aware of Complications
Most people do not take tooth decay and dental cavities seriously because they are very common. Some parents assume that it doesn’t matter if children get cavities in their baby teeth. The leading complications of tooth decay are:
- Tooth abscess
- Chewing problems
- Damaged or broken teeth
- Pus around the teeth
- Positioning shift
- Tooth loss
In severe cases of dental cavities and tooth decay, a patient may:
- Experience severe pain that interferes with their daily life.
- Experience nutrition problems and weight loss due to difficult or painful eating or chewing.
- Tooth loss may affect appearance, resulting in low self-esteem and loss of confidence.
- Tooth abscess. A dental abscess is a swelling containing pus resulting from a bacterial infection. If not treated, a dental abscess could lead to more infections and life-threatening conditions.
Find Out About Tooth Decay Stages
Tooth decay occurs due to the accumulation of dental plaque. Plaque is a sticky film that forms on the tooth’s surface. It consists of food particles, bacteria, and saliva. Plaque starts to build up when you do not clean your teeth properly. Over time, plaque hardens and forms tartar; tartar further conceals the bacteria, making them difficult to remove. There are five main cavity stages of tooth decay:
1. Initial Demineralization
The outer layer of the teeth consists of a type of tissue known as enamel. Enamel is made up of minerals; it is the hardest tissue in the body. When your tooth comes into contact with the acid produced by the bacteria in the plaque, it begins to lose these minerals. You will be able to notice a white spot on the tooth when demineralization occurs. This white spot is the first sign of tooth decay.
2. Enamel Breakdown/Decay
If the process of tooth decay continues, the enamel weakens and breaks down. The initially white spot on the tooth may darken to a brownish colour. Small holes in your teeth, known as dental caries or cavities, may form when the enamel is weakened. The dentist will fill these caries.
Enamel, a crystal-like material, is made up of a mineral called hydroxyapatite. Tooth enamel doesn’t contain living cells. Therefore, you are not likely to feel or notice the initial decay as the enamel breaks down due to acid erosion. When the enamel wears away entirely, it does not grow back.
3. Dentin Decay
The tissue that lies beneath the enamel is known as dentin; compared to the enamel; dentin is softer. Dentin is more susceptible to damage by acid than enamel. When tooth decay penetrates the enamel and reaches the dentin, it accelerates at a faster rate. Certain tubes that lead to the tooth’s nerve are located within the dentin. Therefore, you are likely to experience tooth sensitivity when tooth decay affects the dentin. Your teeth will experience sensitivity whenever you consume hot or cold drinks.
4. Pulp Damage
The pulp is the innermost layer of the tooth. It contains blood vessels and nerves that keep the tooth healthy. The tooth derives sensation from the nerves located within the tooth. When pulp damage occurs, it becomes irritated and starts to swell. The surrounding tissues in the tooth cannot expand to accommodate the swelling, and this exerts pressure on the nerves causing pain.
5. Dental Abscess
As tooth decay further affects the pulp, bacteria may penetrate, causing an infection. A pocket of pus may form at the bottom of the tooth due to increased inflammation in the tooth. This pocket of pus is known as a dental abscess. When you have a dental abscess, you may experience extreme pain that radiates into the jaw. The common symptoms that may be present include swelling of the jaw, gums, and face. Other symptoms include swollen lymph nodes in the neck accompanied by fever.
A dental abscess is an emergency that requires immediate dental treatment. If you don’t seek treatment for a dental abscess, the infection may spread into the bones on your jaw and other areas of the neck and the head. The treatment of a dental abscess may include tooth removal.
How Dangerous is Tooth Decay In Children?
Just like adults, children can also experience tooth decay. Tooth decay is among the most chronic childhood conditions in Canada, according to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a known wild fact that children are more prone to tooth decay than adults. The enamel on children’s baby teeth isn’t fully developed and is, therefore, thinner, more sensitive, and prone to tooth decay.
Rotten teeth in kids occur when the bacteria present in the mouth break down sugars and starch, forming acid that corrodes the enamel. It is important to ensure that a child doesn’t consume too many sugary foods and drinks. It is also advisable to ensure that a child brushes his or her teeth regularly.
It is essential to keep baby teeth healthy even if they are eventually lost. Children need their baby teeth for chewing. Baby teeth also play an extremely important role in speech development. Above all, baby teeth serve as placeholders for adult teeth. Adult teeth may not develop properly if baby teeth are lost too early due to tooth decay.
You should avoid giving the baby many sugary drinks, especially during bedtime, to prevent baby bottle tooth decay. When you give a child a sugary drink during bedtime, the sugar will remain on the child’s teeth throughout the night, making the child susceptible to tooth decay.
How To Prevent Tooth Decay
Practicing good oral hygiene plays an essential role in the prevention of tooth decay. Below are some of the strategies that you can employ to prevent the damage of your teeth:
- Cleaning Your Teeth With Fluoride Toothpaste After Meals – You can keep your teeth healthy by brushing your teeth twice per day and preferably after every meal using fluoride toothpaste. You should use an interdental cleaner or dental floss to clean the area between your teeth.
- Rinsing Your Mouth – Your dentist may recommend that you use a mouth rinse containing fluoride if there’s a strong possibility for you having a high risk of developing dental cavities.
- Regular Dental Visits – Making regular visits to the dentist allows the dentist to detect dental problems early. Regular oral exams and professional teeth cleanings help prevent dental problems. Depending on the level of risk, your dentist will recommend the best schedule for you.
- Dental Sealants – A dental sealant is a protective plastic coating applied on the chewing surface of the back teeth. This substance seals the grooves or the crannies that collect food, preventing the accumulation of plaque that causes tooth decay. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dental sealants are particularly effective in school-age children. Dental sealants may last for several years before they require a replacement. However, sealants must be checked regularly to ensure they are functioning as they should.
- Drinking Tap Water Instead of Bottled Water – Tap water from public water supplies often contains fluoride, which is good for your teeth. Unlike bottled water, pipe water can help reduce the likelihood of tooth decay significantly. You will miss out on the fluoride benefits if you continually drink water that does not contain fluoride.
- Avoid Frequent Snacking and Sugary Drinks – Regular consumption of beverages other than water enables the mouth bacteria to convert the sugars and the starch in these beverages into acids, which are harmful to the teeth. Your teeth will be under attack throughout the day if you constantly snack and drink.
- Choose Healthy Foods – Certain foods and beverages are better and healthier for your teeth than others. You should avoid sticky foods that adhere to the teeth for long. If you consume these foods, ensure that you brush your teeth soon afterwards.
- Fluoride Treatment – If you aren’t getting enough fluoride through fluoridated drinking water, your dentist may recommend a fluoride treatment. A dentist may use custom trays that fit above the teeth to administer fluoride treatment.
- Antibacterial Treatment – Your dentist may recommend an antibacterial mouth rinse or other treatments to get rid of harmful bacteria from your mouth.
- Combined Treatments – Combining several treatments like fluoride treatment, xylitol-based gum, and antibacterial rinse can reduce the risk of dental cavities.
Tooth Decay Treatments Every Dentist Recommends
There are several treatments for tooth decay. The cavity treatment you receive will vary depending on the stage of tooth decay and how bad the problem is. Below are the treatment options available depending on the progression of tooth decay.
Fluoride treatment is ideal during the initial demineralization. At this stage, tooth decay can possibly be reversed before permanent decay occurs. Fluoride treatment helps the tooth enamel to repair itself. The treatment is available in the form of gel or varnish. Then the dentist applies fluoride at the dental office. This treatment makes the enamel stronger, making it more resistant to the acids produced by bacteria present in accumulated plaque. Fluoride is present in tap water and some types of toothpaste.
Dental fillings are the recommended treatment once the decay passes through the enamel and is in the dentin layer. When placing dental fillings, a dentist first uses a special tool to remove all decayed areas. The dentist then fills the hole with material such as ceramic, resin, or dental amalgam. Usually, dentists use a filling material that is the same colour as your teeth. Decay progresses faster during the dentin decay stage because dentin is softer than the tooth enamel. In cases of advanced decay, the dentist may have to place a dental crown after removing the decayed areas to replace the extensive amount of lost tooth structure.
Root Canal Treatment
When the decay has penetrated to the pulp, a root canal treatment may be ideal. The pulp refers to the area inside the tooth containing nerves and blood vessels. When administering a root canal treatment, the dentist removes the decayed pulp and cleans inside the tooth and the root. The next step involves placing a temporary filling. The patient has to make another visit to the dentist’s office to get a permanent filling or a dental crown.
If you have a dental abscess, the dentist may perform a root canal treatment, remove the infection, and seal the tooth. However, in severe cases, the dentist may have to remove the affected tooth.
Once extracted, the missing tooth may be replaced with an implant, denture, or a dental bridge. If you fail to get a dental bridge or implant after tooth extraction, the neighbouring teeth may shift and affect your bite. You may not experience any symptoms of tooth decay in the early stages. This is why it’s important to make regular trips to the dentist. A dentist will help to identify the early stages of tooth decay before the symptoms worsen. It is advisable to book a dental appointment if you experience tooth pain, tooth sensitivity, or swelling around the mouth. The outlined symptoms are signs of later tooth decay or another dental issue that requires attention. Tooth decay develops due to the activities of bacteria present in the dental plaque. The bacteria convert sugar from foods into acids, which damage the teeth. Tooth decay progresses through five stages. The initial stages are often reversible, but the later stages could impose permanent damage on the affected teeth. The ideal treatment for tooth decay varies depending on the stage of decay. The potential treatments for tooth decay include fluoride treatment, dental filling, root canal treatment, and tooth extraction. You can take several steps to prevent tooth cavities. You should brush your teeth twice a day and every time you consume sugary foods and beverages. Make regular visits to the dentist to ensure that the dentist identifies tooth decay signs early. Eat healthily and avoid snacking on foods that contain sugars and starch. Tooth decay is common in children, including infants. The typical form of tooth decay in infants is baby bottle tooth decay. You can prevent this type of decay by ensuring that you do not give a baby sugary drinks, especially before bedtime.