Tooth Cavities

Written by Valencia Higuera | Published on May 28, 2015
Medically Reviewed by Healthline Medical Team on May 28, 2015

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. They 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 cavities, including infants. To protect your oral health and the oral health of your family, you should learn the causes and risk factors for cavities.

Causes of Tooth Cavities

Tooth cavities are caused by plaque, a sticky substance that binds to teeth. Plaque is a combination of bacteria, saliva, acid, and food particles. Everyone has bacteria in their mouth. After eating or drinking foods with sugar, bacteria in your mouth turn sugar into acid. Plaque 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, which can result in stomach acid wearing 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 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 decay.

There are several ways to treat a cavity. Treatment options depend on severity:

  • 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, including:

  • ongoing tooth pain
  • a tooth abscess, which can become infected and trigger life-threatening complications, like an infection that enters the bloodstream (sepsis)
  • development of pus around the infected tooth
  • increased risk for breaking or chipping a tooth
  • difficulty chewing 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. Eat fewer sugary and acidic foods, like sweets, candy, juice, soda, and refined carbohydrates. Limiting snacking between meals is also helpful. Healthy foods like fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, calcium-rich foods, xylitol sugarless chewing gum, unsweetened black or green tea, and water with fluoride can help fight tooth decay. Also, don’t forget to visit your dentist at least twice a year for regular teeth cleanings for prevention and treatment.

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