How does tooth decay occur?
What causes tooth decay?
Tooth decay is also referred to as dental caries or cavities. The breakdown of a tooth because of bacteria is commonly known as tooth decay or dental caries. Care to learn more about how exactly tooth decay occurs? Although tooth enamel is so tough (actually the hardest substance in our body), it can be attacked and damaged by acids made by harmful bacteria (decay-causing bacteria) in our mouth and give rise to the tooth decay process.
When oral bacteria get mixed with our food, especially starchy foods, sugary foods, and sugary drinks, they form a sticky colourless film of bacteria called dental plaque. Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that forms on a tooth surface after eating and drinking. Dental plaque bacteria produce acids from the sugar and starch in the foods and drinks and attack our tooth enamel. Dental caries or tooth decay occurs when the bacteria present in plaque make acids, and these acids start eating away at the mineral in our tooth enamel.
Tooth decay can result in cavities or holes in teeth if dental plaque is not removed regularly and stays on our tooth surfaces for a long time. Untreated dental caries can also cause gum disease and tooth loss. The wisest course of action to prevent cavities and dental caries is to visit your dentist regularly. Your dentist will offer different treatment options for different stages of tooth decay. Tooth decay or dental caries are common oral health problems affecting both baby teeth and permanent teeth.
Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
Tooth decay in baby teeth is also called early childhood caries, baby bottle tooth decay, or nursing bottle caries. The tooth decay process can start as early as the eruption of primary teeth. Baby teeth or primary teeth begin to emerge when a child turns six months old, and they are susceptible to tooth decay from the very beginning. That’s why the Australasian Academy of Paediatric dentistry emphasises arranging early dental check-ups for young children as soon as their primary teeth begin to erupt or before their first birthday.
Early dental hygiene for babies
Did you know you are supposed to take care of your baby’s oral hygiene before they begin to have their first tooth? That’s right. But how and why? Pick up a clean damp washcloth and start whipping the baby’s gums very gently twice a day to get rid of bacteria. Early childhood caries is a transmissible bacterial infection and a significant health concern that can interfere with proper jaw development and dental development. Tooth decay can also affect a child’s speech and nutrition and often results from having a sugar-rich diet and improper dental hygiene. Early tooth decay in children typically affects upper front teeth but can also occur in other teeth. According to CDC the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tooth decay in young children affects more than 20 per cent of kids under the age of six.
Causes of tooth decay in young children
Frequent snacking, high exposure to sugary foods and sugary drinks, poor oral hygiene, and not having regular dental check-ups with a dental professional are all contributing factors that can elevate your child’s risk of tooth decay. Whatever the reason, dental decay in young children, should not be left untreated; otherwise, it can progress and result in premature tooth loss in children. Although your child will eventually lose their baby teeth, they need them for proper dental development. Dental professionals usually consider primary teeth, space holders for future permanent teeth. Premature tooth loss in children can lead to having misaligned teeth in the future. Misaligned teeth will increase your child’s risk of orthodontic issues and the need for costly orthodontic treatments. So, now take a look at your baby’s teeth. Do you see any white spots on your child’s teeth near the gum line? We are hoping the answer’s a definite NO. If, however, you see any white spots on your baby’s teeth near the gum line, you are probably looking at dental caries.
You’d better call your paediatric dentist and schedule an appointment as soon as you notice any signs of tooth decay in your child’s teeth. You can contact us on 07 3343 4869 Pure Dentistry so our paediatric dentists can examine your little one’s mouth and ensure their proper oral health.
Prevent Dental Decay in Children
To prevent baby bottle tooth decay, one rule of thumb is not to send your little one to bed with sweet or sugary drinks like formula, juice, or milk. Try to provide your child with a healthy diet in general, and limit their intake of sweet foods or sweet drinks such as soft drinks to prevent cavities. Please encourage them to practise oral hygiene and clean their teeth. You can use a pea-sized amount of standard fluoride toothpaste for children ages 3 to 6. If you notice tooth decay symptoms, take your child to the dental clinic as soon as possible so the dentist can treat the tooth decay at its early stages, stop the teeth from further decay, and improve your child’s oral health.
What are the stages of tooth decay?
Different stages of tooth decay
Tooth decay is easier to treat if detected at its early stages. So, make sure you visit your dentist regularly to either prevent tooth decay or at least give your dentist the chance to detect the early stages of tooth decay and stop the decay from damaging your tooth structure further.
Tooth decay stage 1
As mentioned earlier, the bacteria present in dental plaque start to eat away at the outer layer of our teeth, enamel. Our teeth enamel is highly mineralised, but demineralisation starts when acids attack this mineralised hard tissue. Once enamel loses its minerals, you will see white spots on the teeth, typically near the gum line. That’s actually how the early stages of tooth decay start.
Tooth decay stage 2
The tooth decay process can continue, weaken the enamel, and erode it. Weak tooth enamel can no longer protect a tooth from damage and decay. That’s when cavities that are small holes on teeth begin to form. Remember stage 1 with all its white spots? Now that we are at the second stage of tooth decay, even the spots have changed colours and turned yellow or brown!
Tooth decay stage 3
If tooth decay proceeds and finds its way to the softer layer of the tooth underneath the enamel, it will cause damage faster. This softer layer of the teeth is called dentin. Dentine is very sensitive, and if exposed because of enamel erosion, it will cause tooth sensitivity. Exposed dentin may cause your teeth to become sensitive to temperature (heat or cold) or sugary food.
Tooth decay stage 4
The pulp is the layer beneath dentin. The dental pulp is your tooth innermost layer with all its blood vessels and nerves. Enamel and dentin protect the pulp from being infected. That’s why they are called “the tooth’s protective layers”. If tooth decay is allowed to progress to the pulp, it causes the pulp to become swollen. This swelling will put the teeth nerves under a lot of pressure. This stage of tooth decay can cause a lot of tooth pain and needs urgent dental treatment.
Tooth decay stage 5
Stage 5 of tooth decay starts a painful dental condition called “tooth abscess”. A tooth abscess, which results from bacterial infection, is a pocket of pus inside a tooth. A dental abscess can cause severe pain and inflammation and require serious dental care.
What are the symptoms of tooth decay?
Tooth decay symptoms
There are some warning signs about tooth decay that you need to be aware of:
- Tooth pain; either occasional or spontaneous
- Tooth sensitivity
- White, grey, brown, or black spots on the teeth
- Pain while biting into food
- Bad breath
- An unpleasant taste in your mouth
- Holes in your teeth
The American Dental Association suggests arranging regular dental check-ups twice a year to prevent oral health problems or spot them early. Your dentist will check your mouth and teeth during your check-up sessions and ensure proper oral health. Any signs of tooth decay will be detected during your regular dental visits, and the dentist will offer the best treatment option to address the condition.
Tooth decay prevention
How to prevent tooth decay
You can prevent tooth decay by following the tips below.
- Visit your dentist regularly.
- Practise good oral hygiene; brush your teeth twice a day using a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste.
- Make sure you are using the correct brushing technique. Make sure you are giving all the teeth enough cleaning time. According to the American Dental Association, you should brush your teeth twice daily and two minutes.
- Rinse your mouth with fluoride mouthwash.
- Try to limit between-meal snacks and sweet foods.
- Avoid drinking a lot of sugary drinks (soft drinks).
- Drink fluoridated drinking water instead of bottled water.
- Ask for dental sealants for your back teeth.
Back teeth are full of pits and grooves and are more prone to cavities because they can collect germs and food debris. So having these teeth sealed will decrease the risk of cavities. Dental sealants are thin protective coatings of plastic. A sealant is applied on the chewing surfaces of the back teeth (molars) to prevent tooth decay. Dental sealants cover the chewing surface of back teeth and do not allow any food particles to get trapped in their grooves.
Dry mouth and tooth decay
Saliva helps prevent tooth decay
Are you aware of saliva’s vital role in your dental health? Our salivary glands’ job is saliva production. Our mouth needs saliva to be moist and keep our teeth healthy. Insufficient saliva flow will lead to dry mouth and increase your risk of tooth decay because our mouth needs sufficient saliva to neutralise acids. Not having enough saliva flow means these acids have the chance to stay on your tooth surface long enough to cause tooth decay! The dry mouth should be addressed because it can also lead to gum disease. One way of preventing tooth decay is preventing dry mouth! Now the question is how to prevent dry mouth?! As always, the best way to prevent oral diseases is to visit your dentist regularly for oral exams and possible dental cleaning. There are many ways to prevent dry mouth and increase saliva flow in your mouth. Chewing sugar-free gum can stimulate saliva production, keep your mouth hydrated, and finally prevent tooth decay caused by dry mouth. On the other hand, smoking can worsen your dry mouth and increase the risk of tooth decay.
Oh, by the way, have you read our comprehensive article about dry mouth?
Tooth decay treatment
How is tooth decay treated?
The treatment option for tooth decay depends on how severe tooth decay is and on what stage of the disease the patient is.
Tooth decay at its early stage and when a hole has not been formed on the teeth is reversible. You can cut back on sugary foods and drinks, practise good oral hygiene, and use fluoride toothpaste. You can also receive fluoride treatments in a dental clinic. Fluoride treatments can prevent tooth decay by strengthening the enamel and making it less susceptible to decay.
Treatment options for later stages of tooth decay and when cavities have been formed on the teeth may include:
Any decayed area will be cleared away, and then the hole will be filled with dental amalgam, resin, or ceramic.
Your dentist may decide to use dental crowns for more extensive decay.
Root canals may be needed if the decay has extended to the pulp. Root canals are performed to remove the affected or damaged pulp. After the root canal is done, you may need a dental crown on top of the affected tooth.
Your dentist will perform a root canal if you have a dental abscess in your tooth and then have the tooth sealed. They may also prescribe antibiotics. Your dentist may have to remove the tooth when the tooth structure is too damaged to be saved in severe cases.
Tooth Decay Risk Factors
Generally, some factors increase a person’s cavities or tooth decay risk.
- Having gum disease
- Trauma to teeth or gums
- Misaligned teeth, crooked teeth are generally more difficult to keep clean.
- Having dry mouth
- The location of your teeth
- Not having enough exposure to fluoride (fluoride toothpaste, tap water)
- Consumption of too much sugary food and frequent snacking