Cavities (teeth)

What is Cavities?

Cavities are areas on the teeth that are permanently damaged. This damage occurs on the hard surface, or enamel of the tooth. These cavities can slowly develop into small openings in the tooth. Cavities are also referred to as tooth decay. They are caused by a large number of factors, including the natural bacteria that builds inside your mouth. The most common cause of cavities is snacking throughout the day, sipping drinks that contain sugar, and not cleaning your teeth properly.

Cavities have become an extremely prevalent health problem in the world today. Anyone who has teeth is susceptible to getting cavities. If they are not treated, they can become much larger and affect other layers of your teeth. Over time, they can cause infection and pain. If the cavity becomes too severe, the dentist may have to extract the tooth because the damage cannot be repaired.

What are the Symptoms of Cavities?

The symptoms experienced by someone who has a cavity can vary greatly. The symptoms can be affected by the location, size and depth of the cavity. For a small cavity that is just starting, there may be no symptoms at all.

Symptoms include

  • Pain in the tooth
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold
  • Mild, possibly sharp pain when the tooth is touched by something sweet
  • Visible hole in the tooth
  • White, brown, or black staining on the surface of the tooth
  • Pain when pressure is applied to the tooth

Cavities Causes

When bacteria in the mouth digest carbohydrates left on the teeth, they create acids. The combination of acid, bacteria, and saliva causes tooth decay and cavities. Cavities can affect the outer layer of the teeth (enamel) or inner layer (dentin). When a white spot appears on a tooth, that is an early sign of acid eroding the enamel of the tooth.

While children are thought to get cavities more often, adults are also at risk. This is mostly due to gum disease and the natural pulling of the gums away from the teeth as adults get older. People of any age can get cavities if they consume foods with high amounts of sugar or carbohydrates like bread, candy, milk, and sweetened tea.

Saliva naturally defends against acid and tooth decay, but eating too much sugary food too often will negate saliva’s positive effects.

How is Cavities Treated?

Dentists recommend a checkup every six months to ensure tooth health and identify any cavities or tooth decay early. Many times, cavities are caused by other problems in the mouth. Other problems in the mouth can also cause cavities to become severe a lot faster.

Cavities that are treated before pain and infection are present require less advanced treatment. The treatment your dentist decides to use will depend on your situation.

Fluoride treatment

If the cavity is just starting to develop, the dentist may provide fluoride treatments. This may help to restore the tooth’s enamel. This is because professional strength fluoride treatments are more potent and contain more fluoride than tap water and toothpastes contain.

Fillings treatment

Fillings, also commonly referred to as tooth restoration is the best treatment when the cavity has damaged further than the initial enamel layer.

Crowns treatment

If the tooth has been severely weakened by tooth decay, a crown that has been specially created for your tooth may be necessary. Your dentist will clean away the damaged portion of the tooth before fitting the crown onto the tooth.

Root canal treatment

When the cavity has reached the pulp of the tooth, or inner tissue, a root canal may be able to save the tooth. During this procedure, the soft tissue inside the tooth that is infected or diseased will be removed.

Tooth extraction treatment

A tooth extraction may be necessary if the damage has progressed to the point where the tooth cannot be saved. If multiple teeth have to be removed, your dentist may recommend a partial denture to prevent teeth from shifting.

Cavities Prevention

A white spot is an early sign of tooth decay that can be reversed or stopped by using fluoride toothpaste. It prevents further mineral loss, helps rebuild minerals in the tooth, and keeps bacteria from producing more acid. To access fluoride, brush regularly with a fluoride toothpaste or use a community water source enhanced with fluoride. Children might be prescribed fluoride tablets or given a fluoride mouth rinse at their dentist visit.

Note that bottled water, unlike most public water supplies, contains only negligible amounts of fluoride.

In addition to fluoride, you can ask your dentist about dental sealants. These prevent food particles from becoming trapped in the mouth and can last up to ten years.

You can also make changes to your eating habits to prevent tooth decay. Avoid snacking between meals and before bed, and choose alternatives that are better for the teeth, such as cheese, fruits and vegetables, and unsweetened tea and coffee.

Practice good dental hygiene by brushing regularly and seeing the dentist at least once a year.

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Last Reviewed:
September 18, 2016
Last Updated:
November 29, 2017
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