Dental cavities are a common issue, which often go unnoticed until they begin to cause real damage to the tooth.
A cavity is a hole in the tooth caused by decay. In advanced stages, cavities can cause pain, sensitivity, or infection.
I’m worried about cavities. Are there any signs?
Cavities Often Exist without Symptoms, Until They Become Serious
A large cavity may be accompanied by tooth pain. Rather than a continuous ache, pain from a cavity is typically spontaneous and may occur without an apparent cause. Sometimes, biting down can cause pain.
Sensitivity to Cold, Hot, or Sweet Foods
Decay can spread from the enamel to the inner portion of the tooth, exposing the nerves. This can make you more sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and certain foods.
Staining on the Tooth Surface
Changes in the appearance of your tooth can also indicate an issue. Brown, black, or white staining on the surface of any tooth may signify a cavity.
Your Diet and Brushing Habits Can Increase Your Risk for Cavities
Everyone is at risk for developing cavities. However, there are certain factors that can increase the chance of tooth decay, including:
- Poor oral hygiene
- Dry mouth
- Frequent snacking throughout the day
- A lack of fluoride
- Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Eating disorders
Cavities are also common in young children and teenagers because their teeth are still developing. Older adults are also at a higher risk, as normal wear and tear makes teeth more vulnerable to decay.
So what actually causes cavities?
Bacteria Eats Away at Teeth and Causes Cavities
There are millions of bacteria in your mouth which thrive on sugary foods and drinks. When teeth are left unbrushed, bacteria can feed on leftover sugar, producing acid. The acid and bacteria then combine to form plaque.
Acid Erodes the Enamel
Plaque sticks to teeth and the acids within begin to wear away at the outer surface of teeth, called enamel. Over time, small openings begin to appear in the enamel, and these openings are the first stage of a cavity.
The longer plaque and bacteria are left on teeth, the larger the cavity can become. Decay can reach the deeper layers of the tooth, causing irritation, sensitivity, and pain. Extensive decay can eventually cause tooth loss.
"Even though they’re preventable, cavities are the most common chronic disease in children and adolescents. If you’re an adult, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. 9 out of 10 adults over the age of 20 have had one or more cavities, according to the CDC." Mark Burhenne, DDS
Properly Caring for Your Teeth Can Prevent Cavities
Good Oral Hygiene
Brushing and flossing your teeth regularly is a great way to prevent cavities, especially if you use fluoride toothpaste. Routine visits to the dentist for cleanings and exams can also help prevent tooth decay.
Some foods and beverages are healthier for your teeth than others. Avoid sugary foods high in carbohydrates and focus on fresh, whole fruits and vegetables.
Regular Dental Exams Can Reveal Even Small Cavities
Your dentist can usually detect areas of decay during a routine exam. They will examine your teeth and probe the surfaces with a dental instrument to look for soft spots. An x-ray can reveal cavities below the surface.
Attending regular, biannual dental exams can help your dentist identify signs of tooth decay early. Small cavities are easier to treat. When you leave a cavity untreated, it can continue to grow and cause more extensive damage to your smile.
The Size of Your Cavity Will Determine Treatment
In the early stages of a cavity, your dentist may be able to repair damaged tooth enamel and reverse the effects of erosion. Professional-strength fluoride treatments contain higher concentrations of fluoride and can encourage your tooth to remineralize.
The most common treatment for a dental cavity is a filling. Your dentist will remove the damaged tissue and renew the strength of your tooth with a dental filling, made from composite resin, porcelain, or amalgam.
In some cases, your dentist may need to place a dental crown to restore a tooth affected by a large cavity. During this treatment, they will remove decayed tissue and shape your tooth to accommodate the crown.
Root Canal Therapy
If decay has spread to the internal layers of your tooth, your dentist may need to perform root canal therapy to remove infected tissue and protect your tooth from otherwise necessary extraction.