(Cavities; Dental Caries; Dental Decay)
DefinitionTooth decay is the destruction of tooth material, which includes:
- Enamel—the hard outer surface of the tooth
- Dentin—the second softer layer beneath the enamel
- Pulp—the inside of the tooth containing the nerve and blood supply
- Root—the area of the tooth anchoring it in the bone
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CausesEveryone has bacteria in their mouths. The bacteria eat sugars that are left on the tooth, which then creates acid. The acid and the bacteria form plaque on the teeth. This plaque clings to your teeth. It holds the acid to the tooth. The acid wears away the tooth. Over time, the acid can lead to tooth decay.
Risk FactorsEveryone has the chance to develop tooth decay. Factors that may increase your chance of tooth decay include:
- Having poor dental hygiene
- Having high numbers of bacteria in the mouth
- Having an insufficient amount of fluoride (some communities in the United States add fluoride to the drinking water)
- Taking medication that contains sugar or causes dry mouth
- Eating a diet high in sugar
- Enamel erosion from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or bulimia nervosa
- Malnourishment (such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies)
- Having certain conditions that decrease the flow of saliva in the mouth, such as Sjogren syndrome
- For children: having caregivers or siblings with severe tooth decay
SymptomsTooth decay may cause:
- Tooth sensitivity to hot or cold
- Tooth discomfort after eating
- Darkening of the tooth surface
- Bad breath or a foul taste in the mouth
- Throbbing, lingering pain in tooth
DiagnosisTooth decay is diagnosed over a period of time. This involves clinical examination as well as x-rays.A dentist checks for tooth decay by:
- Asking about pain in the teeth
- Visually inspecting the surface of the teeth
- Probing teeth with dental instruments to check for:
- Surface defects
- Taking x-rays of teeth
TreatmentSometimes tooth decay will repair itself. This is most likely if it is caught early.Treatment for more severe decay includes:
FillingsWhen decay reaches the dentin, your dentist will treat it by:
- Numbing the tooth and surrounding tissue area
- Removing the decay with instruments
- Filling the hole with a dental filling; the filling can be silver or tooth colored
Root CanalTooth decay that reaches the pulp and/or root of the tooth is treated with a root canal:
- The tooth is numbed and a hole is drilled through the top of the tooth.
- Pus and dead tissue are removed from the tooth.
- The inside of the tooth and the root (nerve) canals are cleaned and filled with a permanent filling.
- The root (nerve) canal is sealed.
- A crown is placed on the tooth to protect it.
Tooth Extraction (Removal)Tooth extraction may be necessary if:
- Tooth decay and/or tooth infection is too extensive for filling or root canal.
- A break or crack in the tooth that has allowed for decay is too severe to be repaired.
- An extensive infection exists between the tooth and gum.
- Partial bridge
- Tooth implant
PreventionTo help reduce your chance of tooth decay:
- Practice proper dental hygiene, including:
- Brushing teeth with fluoride toothpaste after meals or at least twice per day
- Using a soft-bristled toothbrush or a powered toothbrush
- Daily flossing between teeth and gums—Bacteria living between the teeth can only be removed with floss or interdental cleaners.
- Getting regular dental check-ups and teeth cleaning (usually every 6 months)
- Limit the amount of sugar and carbohydrates you eat and drink, including:
- Other sweets
- Rinse your mouth with water after eating sugars
- Replace your toothbrush every 3 to 4 months
- Avoid sugar-containing drinks (including fruit juices), especially in baby bottles
- Chew gum with xylitol or sorbitol (may reduce your risk of developing cavities)
Academy of General Dentistry
Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association
Canadian Dental Association
The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association
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National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=129&key=T. Accessed September 30, 2014.
Seal out tooth decay. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website. Available at http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/OralHealth/Topics/ToothDecay/SealOutToothDecay.htm. Updated August 2012. Accessed September 30, 2014.
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8/2/2012 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Khadra-Eid J, Baudet D, Fourny M, Sellier E, Brun C, François P. Development of a screening scale for children at risk of baby bottle tooth decay. Arch Pediatr. 2012;19(3):235-241.
5/17/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Moyer VA, US Preventive Services Task Force. Prevention of dental caries in children from birth through age 5 years: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. Pediatrics. 2014;133(6):1102-1111.
7/15/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Yaacob M, Worthington HV, et al. Powered versus manual toothbrushing for oral health. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;6:CD002281.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 08/2014
- Update Date: 07/15/2014
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