Tooth Decay

(Cavities; Dental Caries; Dental Decay)

Definition

Tooth 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
Tooth Decay
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Causes

Everyone 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 Factors

Everyone has the chance to develop tooth decay. Factors that may increase your chance of tooth decay include:
  • Snacking
  • 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
Babies are also at risk for developing cavities. Habits that can increase the risk include giving a bottle between regular feedings or while in bed at night.

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