Tooth Cavities

Written by Valencia Higuera | Published on November 24, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on November 24, 2014

Tooth Cavities

Hearing the words, “you have a cavity,” might come as a surprise. This is especially true if you think you have a good oral hygiene routine. But even if your dentist delivers bad news, there are ways to treat a cavity and prevent new ones from forming. 

A cavity, also called tooth decay, is a hole that forms in a tooth. Cavities start small and gradually become bigger when left untreated. Since many cavities don’t cause pain in the beginning, some people don’t realize a problem exists. Regular dental appointments can detect tooth decay early. 

The symptoms of a cavity depend on the severity of the decay. These may include: 

  • tooth sensitivity
  • tooth pain
  • visible hole in the teeth
  • black or white staining on teeth

According to the Mayo Clinic, cavities and tooth decay are some of the most common health problems in the world. Anyone with teeth can develop one, including infants. To protect your oral health and the oral health of your family, you should learn the causes and risk factors of cavities.

Causes of Tooth Cavities

Plaque causes tooth cavities. This is a sticky substance that binds to teeth. Everyone has bacteria in their mouth. After eating or drinking foods with sugar, bacteria in our mouth changes sugar into acid. Plaque is actually a combination of bacteria, saliva, acid, and food particles. It starts forming on teeth soon after eating or drinking anything sugary. This is why regular brushing is important.

Plaque sticks to teeth, and the acid in plaque can slowly erode tooth enamel. Enamel is a hard, protective coating on teeth that protects against tooth decay. As tooth enamel weakens, the risk for decay increases. 

Everyone is at risk for cavities, but some people have a higher risk. Risk factors include:

  • too many sugary or acidic foods and drinks
  • a poor oral hygiene routine (failing to brush or floss daily)
  • not getting enough fluoride
  • dry mouth
  • eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia)
  • acid reflux disease (stomach acid wears down tooth enamel)

Cavities develop more often in the back teeth, according to the Mayo Clinic. These teeth have grooves and openings that can trap food particles. Also, these teeth are sometimes harder to reach when brushing and flossing.

Treatment Options for Tooth Cavities

Tell your doctor about uncomfortable symptoms like tooth sensitivity or tooth pain. Your dentist can identify tooth decay after an oral exam. However, some cavities aren’t visible from an oral exam. So, your dentist may use a dental X-ray to look for any decay.

There are several ways to treat a cavity. Treatment options depend on the severity of the decay.  

  • Tooth fillings: A dentist uses a drill and removes decayed material from a tooth. Your dentist fills the tooth with a substance, such as silver, gold, or composite resin.
  • Crowns: For larger decays, a dentist may place a custom fit cap over your tooth to replace its natural crown. Decayed tooth material is removed prior to beginning this procedure. 
  • Root canal: When tooth decay causes the death of nerves, dentists perform a root canal to save the tooth. They remove the nerve and blood vessel tissues, and any decayed areas of the tooth. Dentists also check for infections, and apply medication to the roots as needed. They fill the tooth, and sometimes they’ll place a crown on the tooth. 

If your dentist detects a tooth cavity in its early stage, a fluoride treatment may restore your tooth enamel and prevent further decay.

Complications from Tooth Cavities

If left untreated, a tooth cavity can cause a variety of complications. Some people have ongoing tooth pain. Others develop a tooth abscess which can become infected and trigger life-threatening complications, like an infection that enters the bloodstream (sepsis).

An untreated cavity can also cause pus to develop around the infected tooth. There’s a greater risk for breaking or chipping a tooth, and some people have problems chewing their food. If you put off seeing a dentist, you may cause irreparable damage to your tooth. At this point, the only way to fix the cavity is for your dentist to remove the tooth and replace it with an implant or bridge.

Reduce Your Risk

Tooth cavities are a common dental problem, but you can reduce your risk. Brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and floss once daily as recommended by the American Dental Association (ADA). Eat fewer sugary and acidic foods, and limit snacking between meals. Also, don’t forget to visit your dentist at least twice a year for regular teeth cleanings.

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