(Cavities; Dental Caries; Dental Decay)
Tooth decay is the destruction of tooth material, which includes:
- Enamel—the hard outer surface of the tooth
- Dentin—the second softer layer beneath the enamel
- Pulp—the inside of the tooth that contains the nerve and blood supply
- Root—the part of the tooth that holds it into 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 the teeth and holds the acid to the tooth. The acid wears away the tooth and can lead to tooth decay over time.
Everyone is at risk for tooth decay. Some things that may raise this risk are:
- Having poor dental hygiene
- Having high numbers of bacteria in the mouth
- Not getting enough fluoride (some places in the United States add fluoride to drinking water)
- Taking medicines that have sugar or cause dry mouth
- Eating a diet that is high in sugar
- Health problems that destroy tooth enamel, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or bulimia nervosa
- Health problems that decrease the flow of saliva in the mouth, such as Sjogren syndrome
- Poor nutrition
- Having a family history of severe tooth decay
- Giving babies a bottle between regular feedings or while in their crib
A person with tooth decay may have:
- Tooth sensitivity to hot or cold
- Tooth discomfort after eating
- Darkening of the tooth surface
- Bad breath or a foul taste in the mouth
- Throbbing tooth pain
The dentist will ask about symptoms and health history. A dental exam will be done.
Images may be taken of the tooth and the bone around it. This can be done with x-rays.
Sometimes tooth decay will repair itself. This is most likely if it is caught early.
Treatment for more severe decay includes:
To lower the risk of this problem:
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and brush with fluoride toothpaste after meals or at least twice per day.
- Floss every day.
- Get regular dental check-ups and teeth and gum cleanings every six months. A dental sealant may also be applied to protect the teeth.
- Eat a healthful diet that limits sugar and carbohydrates.
- Chew gum with xylitol or sorbitol (may lower the risk of getting cavities).
- Fluoride for prevention of dental caries. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/fluoride-for-prevention-of-dental-caries.
- Statement on early childhood caries. American Dental Association website. Available at: https://www.ada.org/en/about-the-ada/ada-positions-policies-and-statements/statement-on-early-childhood-caries.
- Tooth decay. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website. Available at https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/tooth-decay/more-info.
- Mary-Beth Seymour, RN
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