Tooth decay is the destruction of tooth material, which includes: Enamel—the hard outer surface of the toothDentin—the second softer layer beneath the enamelPulp—the inside of the tooth containing the nerve and blood supplyRoot—the area of the tooth anchoring it in the bone
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Everyone has bacteria in their mouths. The bacteria eat sugars that are left on the tooth, which then creates acid. The acid and the bacteria form plaque on the teeth. This plaque clings to your teeth. It holds the acid to the tooth. The acid wears away the tooth. Over time, the acid can lead to tooth decay.
Everyone has the chance to develop tooth decay. Factors that may increase your risk of cavities include: SnackingHaving poor dental hygieneHaving high numbers of bacteria in the mouthHaving an insufficient amount of fluoride (some communities in the United States add fluoride to the drinking water)Taking medicine that contains sugar or causes dry mouth
Eating a diet high in sugarEnamel erosion from
gastroesophageal reflux disease
bulimia nervosaBeing malnourished (such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies)
Having certain conditions that decrease the flow of saliva in the mouth (such as
For children: having caregivers or siblings with severe dental caries
Babies are also at risk for developing cavities. Habits that can increase the risk include giving a bottle between regular feedings or while in bed at night.
Symptoms include: Tooth sensitivity to hot or coldTooth discomfort after eatingDarkening of the tooth surfaceBad breath or a foul taste in the mouthThrobbing, lingering pain in tooth
Tooth decay is diagnosed over a period of time. This involves clinical examination as well as x-rays.
A dentist checks for tooth decay by: Asking about pain in the teethVisually inspecting the surface of the teeth
Probing teeth with dental instruments to check for:
SensitivityPainSoftnessSurface defectsTaking x-rays of teeth
Sometimes tooth decay will repair itself. This is most likely if it is caught early.
Treatment for more severe decay includes:
When decay reaches the dentin, your dentist will treat it by: Numbing the tooth and surrounding tissue areaRemoving the decay with instrumentsFilling the hole with a dental filling; the filling can be silver or tooth colored
Tooth decay that reaches the pulp and/or root of the tooth is treated with a
The tooth is numbed and a hole is drilled through the top of the tooth.Pus and dead tissue are removed from the tooth.The inside of the tooth and the root (nerve) canals are cleaned and filled with a permanent filling.The root (nerve) canal is sealed.A crown is placed on the tooth to protect it.
The tooth may need to be removed if: Tooth decay and/or tooth infection is too extensive for filling or root canal.A break or crack in the tooth that has allowed for decay is too severe to be repaired.An extensive infection exists between the tooth and gum.
If the tooth is removed, it will be replaced with: A partial bridge
dentureA tooth implant
If you are diagnosed with tooth decay, follow your dentist's
Measures that help prevent and stop tooth decay include:
Proper dental hygiene, including:
with fluoride toothpaste after meals or at least twice per day
between teeth and gums—Bacteria living between the teeth can only be removed with floss or interdental cleaners.
Getting regular dental check-ups and teeth cleaning
Limiting the amount of sugar and carbohydrates you eat and drink, including:
HoneySodasCandyCakesCookiesOther sweetsRinsing your mouth with water after eating sugarsReplacing your toothbrush every 3 to 4 monthsAvoiding sugar-containing drinks (including fruit juices), especially in baby bottlesChewing gum with xylitol or sorbitol (may reduce your risk of developing cavities)
Talk to your dentist about the use of a
. This is a protective plastic covering. It is applied to the chewing surfaces of teeth. Sealants usually last anywhere from 5-15 years.
Prevention is particularly important for children. Supplemental fluoride in early childhood can prevent early decay. Most local water supplies have fluoride. Fluoride can also be applied to permanent teeth as a long acting varnish. Re-varnishing is usually necessary at least twice yearly.
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Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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