Tooth Decay (Cavities) – Signs, Treatment, Fillings And Prevention

What Is Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay, or a hole (cavity) in your tooth, is caused by the bacteria in your mouth and a diet that is high in sugar.  Foods containing sugar produce acids in the mouth which eat away at teeth causing decay.  A cavity requires a filling if the decay goes through the enamel (the outside layer of the tooth) to the dentine, which is the soft layer of the tooth under the enamel.  If left untreated a cavity will get bigger over time and cause pain as it gets closer to the nerve in the middle of the tooth.  Cavities are most likely to occur between the teeth, on the biting surface, and near the gums.

What Are The Signs Of Tooth Decay?

It can be difficult to see or feel a cavity until it is quite large as it usually grows quite a bit below the surface through a small hole in the enamel before it becomes an obvious hole that you can feel.  You may notice part of a tooth which looks grayish in color, this would be decay that you can see through a layer of enamel.  Regular check-ups with a dentist will identify any tooth decay at an early stage.

How Is Tooth Decay Treated?

If you have a cavity in a tooth, the decay will need to remove and filled with a filling.  For large fillings, you will be given a local anesthetic so you don’t feel any pain. A filling involves a dentist removing the decay using a drill and filling it with either composite resin (white filling) or amalgam (silver filling).  The dentist will then file the filling down to ensure it is the correct size and that it is smooth and comfortable against your tongue.

What Problems Can Occur After Having A Filling?

If the decay in your tooth is very deep you may experience sensitivity after the filling.  Often this sensitivity goes away after some time (this can sometimes take weeks) but if it is chronic or severe you may need to have a root canal.   While your dentist has taken every care to ensure your filling is the right size, sometimes you may realize that your bite feels high once the local anesthetic has worn off.  If you feel like you are biting down on the filling first or if your bite feels uneven, return to your dentist to have the filling filed down to the right size.  Not having your bite corrected can result in pain or breaking the filling.

How Can I Prevent Tooth Decay?

After you eat anything the acids in your mouth attack your teeth for half an hour before they neutralize.  Reducing the number of times you snack throughout the day lessens the amount of time your teeth are exposed to these harmful acids and thus prevents tooth decay.  Foods containing carbohydrates or sugar are best avoided as snacks and should be limited to meals only.  Fruit juices are very acidic and should be avoided; in fact, orange juice is almost as acidic as stomach acid.

Where you live also depends on the quality of the water and if it contains fluoride or not.  Using a toothpaste which contains fluoride is particularly important for people who don’t get the fluoride from the water they drink.

Having enough saliva in your mouth is important in helping prevent tooth decay.  Dry mouth (xerostomia), can commonly cause decay, so it is important to treat xerostomia if you are a sufferer.

Children who have recently grown new molars are able to get fissure seals to protect their teeth.  As the bristles of a toothbrush are not always able to get into the fissures (pits) to clean them, decay can occur.  A fissure seal is a protective coating that is placed in the fissures on the biting surface of their teeth to prevent cavities.  It is a simple pain-free procedure that does not harm the teeth in any way.

Of course, the best way to avoid tooth decay is by brushing your teeth every morning and night and flossing once per day.  Visiting your dentist every 6 months is important to get your teeth cleaned and to check if you have developed any cavities.  A dentist will take x-rays every two years to look for decay underneath fillings and between the teeth that can’t be seen with a visual examination.