Tooth Decay

What is Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay is an oral condition that causes a breakdown of the teeth. This often leads to the formation of cavities, which are little holes that sometimes appear in teeth. They occur when food and bacteria form a clear sticky substance called plaque that builds up along the gums and teeth on an almost constant basis.

The acids found in plaque attack the teeth for several minutes following a meal. After a while, the tooth enamel may be destroyed and the pulp of the tooth can become exposed.

With more than three million cases in the United States every year, tooth decay is a very common problem that can affect anyone of any age, even babies and young children. Certain habits can make a person more prone to it, such as poor dental hygiene and frequent consumption of foods high in sugar content. A dry mouth, smoking, chewing tobacco, and having diabetes also increase the likelihood of developing tooth decay.

What are the Symptoms of Tooth Decay?

In many cases, symptoms of tooth decay are not noticeable until a cavity has already formed or a tooth has become infected.

Symptoms include:

  • Swollen gums
  • Toothache
  • Gray, white, black, or brown spots on teeth
  • Bad breath
  • Bad taste in the mouth

Tooth Decay Causes

Tooth decay is caused by repeated exposure of the tooth to acid. The everyday foods and drinks that we consume create acids which attack the minerals within tooth enamel. Eventually, this leads to permanent cavities.

Acids are created when sugary and starchy foods react with bacteria in our mouths. The bacteria comes from plaque; a sticky, clear substance which constantly forms on the teeth. Our saliva naturally works to fight these acids, but if we consume large amounts of sugar and starch, acid levels may remain high enough to cause persistent tooth decay.

Fluoride also helps to neutralize acids, which is why daily brushing with a toothpaste that contains fluoride can help to keep tooth decay at bay. Not only that, but regular brushing helps to remove plaque which contains bacteria. Poor oral hygiene can, therefore, contribute to tooth decay.

Smoking and using smokeless tobacco can also contribute to tooth decay, since the chemicals found in tobacco are harmful to teeth and gums. Even breathing secondhand smoke can increase the risk of tooth decay.

Diabetes is also known to increase the risk of tooth decay. This is because diabetes causes saliva and blood to have higher than normal glucose levels, which contributes to the production of acid.

How is Tooth Decay Treated?

It is important that tooth decay be treated even after a toothache has gone away. The pain may have stopped, but the decay will continue if left unchecked. The best treatment is prevention by practicing good dental hygiene habits, including brushing, flossing, using mouthwash, and scheduling regular dental checkups.

However, sometimes even that is not enough. When decay does destroy the tooth enamel, dentists can offer various treatments. Depending on the severity, patients may need a crown, root canal, filling, or tooth extraction. For management of pain and swelling, holding cold packs against the face and taking nonprescription pain relievers are both effective methods.

Tooth Decay Prevention

People who smoke or use smokeless tobacco should try to quit to reduce their risk of tooth decay, as well as other oral health conditions such as gingivitis and gum disease.

Reducing the amount of sugar and starches in your diet is also a great way to reduce the risk of tooth decay. It is particularly important to avoid eating or drinking sugary things after brushing teeth before bed, because our mouths naturally produce less saliva during sleep which can make the effects of acids significantly worse throughout the night.

Follow these oral hygiene practices to ward off tooth decay:

  • Use a toothbrush which contains fluoride
  • Brush twice each day for two minutes each time
  • Replace toothbrushes or electric brush heads at least every three months or after signs of wear, whichever is sooner
  • Use an electric toothbrush for more thorough cleansing
  • Spit out excess toothpaste but do not rinse the mouth to allow fluoride to remain on the teeth
  • Floss between teeth once each day before brushing
  • Drink tap water (if it’s safe to do so in your area) since this tends to contain higher levels of fluoride than bottled water
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Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
September 10, 2017