Tooth Decay: Why Does It Happen?

experiencing tooth decay

For most people, one of the most painful experiences they will have to go through is suffering from a toothache, and often, it happens because of tooth decay. To understand the importance of seeing a dentist regularly and taking care of your oral health, learn more about tooth decay.

What Is Tooth Decay, and What Causes It?

The teeth are composed of an outer part called enamel, a very hard substance (the hardest in the human body). Beneath it lies dentin containing small tubules that run through it from the pulp to the exterior.

Minerals in saliva, with fluoride being the most important, will enter the tooth through these tubules and become incorporated into its structure, strengthening it with time. This process is called mineralization.

Tooth decay, also known as cavities or dental caries, is a common chronic disease that decays the tooth’s enamel by creating holes in it. Decay happens when bacteria in your mouth interact with food, especially sugars and starches, to create acids. Acids make the minerals in your teeth (calcium and phosphate) dissolve, which causes holes in the tooth’s enamel.

Meanwhile, risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Gender (women are more likely than men to get decay)
  • Not enough fluoride
  • Family history
  • Deficiency in vitamins like A, C, and D
  • Medications

Signs and Symptoms of Tooth Decay

Tooth decay often starts on the inside of a tooth and moves out as it spreads. It can happen anywhere in the mouth, but it’s most likely to form on the back teeth (molars and premolars), followed by the front teeth (incisors).

Symptoms include:

  • Sensitivity to hot or cold food and drinks
  • Sensitivity to sweets or sour food
  • Toothaches, which may be throbbing pain in the teeth and gums
  • Visible holes on the side of a tooth
  • Changes in how teeth fit together when biting
  • Pain when chewing (especially with cold foods)
  • Teeth that look uneven or lined up oddly (this happens if decay spreads under gums)

Diagnosis and Treatment for Tooth Decay

looking at x ray of teeth

To find out if you have tooth decay, the dentist will perform a thorough check of your mouth. They may look for signs of inflammation such as redness and abscess, as well as holes in the teeth.

Dentists may also request an X-ray. X-rays help the dentist see where decay is and identify signs of possible bone or nerve damage. In terms of treatment, your dentist will remove whatever decayed parts they can from the tooth and harden them with a filling. In some cases, they may have to perform a root canal, a procedure that involves removing the diseased or damaged inner pulp of a tooth and replacing it with filler material.

If you need this treatment, they will refer you to a dental specialist known as an endodontist for treatment on your primary tooth (the one that’s visible when you smile or speak). If the problem is already severe, the solution is usually surgery. A reputable oral surgeon can perform complex root canal surgeries when appropriate.

In extreme cases, when a tooth has been filled several times and is beyond repair, this type of dentist may need to remove it from your mouth and replace it with a bridge or implant (a permanent artificial replacement).

If tooth decay is left untreated, it can worsen and destroy the tooth. The decay may spread to other teeth and cause extensive damage. You may also experience pain, sensitivity, and other symptoms. If the decay reaches the roots of the teeth, you may experience gum disease, bone loss, and even tooth loss.

How to Minimize Tooth Decay Risk

You can help reduce the risk of tooth decay in several ways, including:

  • Avoid snacking between meals or while watching TV. This results in less saliva production, which places you at greater risk of getting cavities.
  • Brush your teeth after every meal and floss daily to clean around the gum line where bacteria like to hide.
  • Visit the dentist at least once every six months to detect decay early on.
  • Use a straw for drinking beverages with sugar. This helps prevent your teeth from coming into contact with the acid in soda and juice.
  • Eat plenty of fresh produce and high-quality protein to help ensure you get enough vitamins and minerals.
  • Get a fluoride treatment twice per year to strengthen your tooth enamel.
  • Use sugarless gum or candy for between-meal snacks instead of sugary foods like cookies and cakes.

You can avoid tooth decay and cavities by following simple guidelines, such as brushing your teeth after every meal, avoiding sugary snacks, and getting a fluoride treatment twice per year. By implementing these tips into your daily routine, you’ll be on your way to keeping your smile healthy and cavity-free.

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