Even after trying your best to prevent tooth decay, sometimes the dentist finds a little cavity or two. It may be tempting to put off tooth decay treatment when you're not feeling any pain, but procrastination comes with a price: Tooth decay doesn't repair itself, and what starts out as a minor problem can quickly become serious, changing your treatment options dramatically.
The Start of Tooth Decay
Tooth decay is actually a very sneaky disease that typically begins before a patient even notices, says the American Dental Association (ADA). Sticky bacterial plaque forms on your teeth and uses sugars in the foods you eat to create acids. These strong acids slowly soften and dissolve the hard enamel covering your teeth. Left untreated, decay will work its way through all the layers of your tooth.
Signs and Severity of Tooth Decay
You won't notice pain and sensitivity until decay goes through the enamel into the dentin layer, the Academy of General Dentistry notes. Dentin is made up of tiny nerve endings that become irritated and cause sensitivity when exposed to hot, cold, sweet, sticky and sour foods. You may also feel discomfort when biting down and find that food frequently gets trapped between your teeth.
Decay spreads rapidly through dentin because it is much softer than enamel. Root decay also spreads quickly, since the cementum covering on the root is not as hard and thick as enamel. Be warned that as tooth decay continues, your pain may be more frequent and intense.
It is important to remember that infection develops when decay and bacteria reach the pulp portion of your tooth, which contains the nerves and blood vessels. The ADA notes that pain from an abscessed tooth is persistent, serious and will likely keep you up at night. Other symptoms include fever, facial swelling and a bad taste in your mouth. You may notice pus draining from a red swelling on your gum near the root tip. Consequences can be serious if the infection spreads into your jawbone or throughout your body.
Tooth Decay Treatment
If your dentist detects a small area of erosion on your enamel before it reaches the dentin, he may suggest an approach that would help repair the spot. This process might include using mouthrinses, toothpastes or filling materials that contain fluoride, calcium and phosphates. Ask your dentist about using a fluoride varnish for treatment of early decay and cavity prevention.
When decay reaches the dentin, there is no turning back. A small cavity can be repaired with either an amalgam filling (composed of silver and other metals) or a tooth-colored resin material. If the tooth has lost a lot of its structure, however, your dentist may need to do a crown. Crowns strengthen and restore shape and function to your teeth, but they cost quite a bit more than a simple filling.
An abscessed tooth is the worst-case scenario, and your treatment options are slim: You can either opt for a root canal treatment or an extraction, though dentists will typically only do extractions when there are no other means of saving the tooth. Should you require a root canal, your dentist or an endodontist will remove the diseased pulp and clean and seal the pulp chamber; the ADA website contains more details about this process. After root canal treatment, teeth can become more brittle and break easily. If you lost a lot of tooth structure due to decay, your dentist may also recommend a crown for your tooth.
Do you see a pattern here? The longer you put off dental treatment, the more involved and expensive it becomes — and the more pain you may have to endure. The moral of this story is to go to the dentist at the first sign of trouble. Better yet, prevent decay from occurring by brushing and flossing daily, and visiting your dentist regularly for a more thorough cleaning and checkup.