Most people wouldn’t categorize dental caries (tooth decay) as one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in the U.S., but the truth is it affects 92 percent of adults aged 20-64. It’s also the single most common childhood disease. These statistics might seem unlikely at first, but if we call dental caries by their more common name — cavities — it begins to make more sense. Odds are you have had at least several cavities in your life. Most of us don’t consider cavities to be a big deal, but tooth decay can be a serious problem, causing symptoms ranging from minor sensitivity all the way to significant infections, and even death in rare cases. 

Why Tooth Decay is a Problem

The hard, white outside layer of a tooth is called enamel. This enamel, the hardest substance in your body, allows you to bite, chew, and it protects the rest of the inside of the tooth. Healthy enamel can resist damage from acids and plaque, but it cannot be regenerated if it breaks or a cavity creates a hole in it. In the beginning stages of tooth decay, if the enamel is not broken through, proper dental hygiene and nutrition can allow the enamel to remineralize and heal. If the damage continues to the extent that a hole is created in the enamel, the bacteria in plaque can reach the underlying tooth layer called dentin. This can initially cause minor symptoms like sensitivity to cold or sweets. If left untreated, the damage to the tooth cannot be reversed. If the cavity grows large enough, part or all of a tooth can break, or the cavity process can make it all the way to the pulp (nerve) of the tooth, causing significant pain. If enough bacteria make it into the nerve canal of the tooth, the tooth may die (become necrotic) and a painful infection or abscess may form.

What Causes Tooth Decay

When dental plaque remains undisturbed on a tooth surface, bacteria in the plaque create acid as they break down sugars and carbs. The acid begins a demineralization process of the tooth enamel; and if it is not stopped or reversed by plaque removal, the acid-buffering capacity of the saliva, and proper nutrition; a cavity will form. Bacteria and demineralization continue to work further into the tooth and cause more damage, actually speeding up as it breaks through the enamel into the dentin.

How to Treat Tooth Decay

The initial stages of tooth decay can actually be reversed if the tooth is kept clean and the buffering action and mineral delivery of saliva can be effective. If the cavity grows to the point that restorative treatment is needed, small-to-medium-sized cavities can be treated with dental fillings. If the cavity is larger and the tooth has cracked or broken, a crown that covers the entire tooth may be the more appropriate treatment. When a cavity gets very deep, a root canal or extraction could be needed. In extreme cases, a tooth may be past the point of fixing and need to be extracted. Following tooth removal, replacement options include a dental implant, bridge or removable partial denture. You can learn more about each of these procedures here

How to Prevent Tooth Decay

Of course, the best course of action is to prevent tooth decay in the first place. The first key is keeping plaque off the teeth. This means frequent and effective brushing to remove the plaque on the tops and sides of teeth and flossing or using a tool like a Waterpik to clean in between teeth. If plaque isn’t given the chance to build up and remain undisturbed on the enamel, you are much less likely to get a cavity. Being proactive and eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals to protect and strengthen your enamel is also important.  

Additionally, many safe and effective products like probiotics, rinses and toothpastes exist to lower your risk of cavity development (click the links to see the products we use at Nashville Restorative Dentistry). Avoiding acidic and sugary foods and beverages like soda, sports drinks and sticky candy is beneficial. For most kids and some adults, the use of BPA-free dental sealants on the chewing surfaces of permanent teeth can be an extra preventative measure to keep the pits and grooves cavity-free.

Remember: once tooth decay has broken through the enamel, it cannot be reversed. Preventing cavities through proper hygiene and diet is extremely important to avoid potential damage and the necessary treatments to repair it. 

Take the first step in protecting or restoring your smile by booking a consultation today. Call Nashville Restorative Dentistry at 615-591-0294 to schedule an appointment, or click here for a free virtual consult.