Dental Caries (Tooth Decay)

Dental caries, or tooth decay, is caused by acid erosion of tooth enamel.

What Causes Tooth Decay?

The human mouth contains many different types of bacteria, which can gradually build up, forming plaque. The plaque bacteria convert the sugar and carbohydrates in food particles into acids which dissolve the minerals on the surface of the tooth, eroding the enamel or creating pits or dental cavities called dental caries.

Early caries may be reversed if the acid damage is stopped and the tooth is given a chance to repair itself naturally, but caries that have destroyed the enamel cannot be reversed.

Plaque typically forms in:

  • Cracks, pits or grooves in the back teeth
  • Between teeth
  • Around dental fillings or bridgework
  • Near the gum line

This damage can occur anywhere that the tooth is exposed to plaque, including the hard outer enamel on the tooth crown or parts of the root that have been exposed because of receding gums.

As the tooth decay progresses, the protective enamel is penetrated, exposing the softer dentin and tooth pulp, which contain nerve fibres; this can result in pain.

If a tooth cavity is not treated, it will eventually destroy the tooth.

Signs of Tooth Decay

The early stages of decay are usually painless, and only regular professional examinations can help detect the decay at this point.

However, when the enamel is damaged, sensitivity develops to hot/cold foods and drinks. When the dentin is damaged, it can result in pain.

Diagnosis of Dental Caries

Dental caries can be diagnosed by:

  • Dental examination by a dentist
  • X-rays if the dentist suspects hidden caries

Tooth Decay Treatment

The standard treatment for a tooth cavity is to fill the tooth with fillings made of dental amalgam or composite resin. Amalgams are used primarily in molars and premolars, and resins are used primarily in the front teeth.

If a cavity is large, the dentist will clear the decay, fill the cavity and cover the tooth with an artificial crown. The dentist may advise root canal treatment, which involves removing the tooth's pulp and replacing it with an inert material.

How to Prevent Tooth Decay

Tips for preventing dental caries include:

  • Brushing your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste.
  • Cleaning between the teeth daily with floss.
  • Maintaining a balanced diet and limiting between-meal snacks.
  • Having regular dental visits for professional cleaning and assessment.
  • Using dental sealants, a protective plastic coating that can be applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth where decay often starts. Check with your dental professional for more details.

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