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What Causes Teeth to Decay?

Tooth decay is the destruction of a tooth’s enamel— the hard, out layer. Often referred to as cavities or dental caries, tooth decay is a prevalent condition frequently seen in young adults and children.

Let’s take a more in-depth look into tooth decay exploring its causes, treatment, and prevention.

What Causes Tooth Decay?

Hundreds of different bacteria live in various places in our mouths, including the gums, teeth, and tongue. Some of these bacteria are beneficial, but others can be harmful.

The harmful bacteria in that equation play an integral role in the tooth decay process. They accumulate on your teeth, forming a sticky film known as dental plaque. When you eat and drink, these bacteria use sugars in food to form acids.

These acids can dissolve tooth enamel by removing minerals from it. If left untreated, oral acids can eventually cause a cavity in your tooth. Decay begins in the enamel.

As enamel is broken down, decay can extend deep into the dentin, and in the end, reach the pulp of your tooth. Tooth decay is primarily associated with sugary, sticky foods and beverages.

The more sugar you consume, the more acid that gets produced resulting in tooth decay. In fact, each time you consume a sugary snack, your teeth have an increased risk of acid damage for the next 20 minutes.

Symptoms of Tooth Decay

Dental caries exhibits no symptoms until they have progressed extensively. At that point, a chalky white spot may appear on your tooth, indicating dissolution of the enamel. Note that this chalky white spot doesn’t appear in all cases of decay.

As decay progresses, this chalky spot turns brown due to continued decay. The area then becomes soft, thanks to demineralization, before decay continues into deeper layers where nerves are present, and pain and sensitivity result.

Tooth Decay Treatment

If the decay hasn’t broken through your enamel, your dentist can apply sealants on any teeth that exhibit early signs of decay. However, if the enamel has become irreversibly damaged, the best option is to fill the tooth.

A root canal can become necessary in more severe cases. In children, applying a sealant on both baby molars and permanent molars may slow or even stop the progression of decay. A dentist can also apply fluoride varnish on both milk and permanent teeth to prevent decay.

How to Prevent Your Teeth from Decaying

You can help avert dental decay by:

  • Brushing your teeth at least twice a day with toothpaste that contains fluoride
  • Cleaning between your teeth every day with interdental cleaners or dental floss
  • Rinsing your mouth daily with a fluoride-containing mouthwash
  • Eating nutritious meals and limiting your intake of carbohydrates like candy and chips, which generally remain on the tooth surface.
  • Consulting your dentist on the use of supplemental fluoride, which can strengthen your teeth.
  • Drinking fluoridated water. Children need at least a pint of fluoride water every day to protect them from dental caries.
  • Visiting your dentist on a regular basis for oral exams and professional cleaning.