what causes tooth decay and how to prevent it - colgate sg

What Causes Cavities: What You Need to know About Cavity Formation, Treatment and Prevention

Cavities are common, but they don't have to be for you. Discover what causes cavities, how to treat them, and what you can do to prevent them so you can keep your teeth happy and healthy for years to come.

Cavities, also known as dental caries, are areas of decay in the tooth.

They're pretty common and can be treated quickly.

In fact, as the National University Centre for Oral Health Singapore points out, dental caries is the most common chronic disease of the childhood, five times more common than childhood asthma and four times more common than childhood obesity.

How Do Cavities Form?

When it comes to cavities, plaque is your main culprit. This sticky biofilm of bacteria continually forms on your teeth and feeds on the sugars in the foods you eat and liquids you drink. The bacteria in plaque releases acid, and the stickiness of the plaque keeps these acids in contact with your teeth, which damages the tooth's enamel through the loss of calcium and phosphate. This process is known as demineralisation and can cause white spots to form on the tooth's surface. These tiny openings in the enamel represent the first stage of cavities.

If allowed to progress, the acid and bacteria will then begin to impact the next layer of the tooth called dentine. Dentine is made of microscopic tubules, and without the protective covering of the enamel, these tubules allow hot, cold, acidic and sticky foods to stimulate the nerves inside the tooth, causing tooth sensitivity and pain.

If not stopped, plaque will work through the tooth until it reaches the inner tooth material, known as the pulp. This soft tissue at the centre of your tooth contains nerves, blood vessels and connective tissues. When the bacteria infect the pulp, a tooth abscess can occur, which causes severe toothaches, extreme temperature sensitivity, pain when biting, fever, and even swelling in the face or cheeks.

How Do You Treat Cavities?

If you recognise any signs of a cavity, you should make an appointment with your dentist immediately. Despite wild internet claims, you can't get rid of a cavity on your own. A dental professional can only treat cavities, and your treatment will depend on the level of tooth decay.

  • Remineralisation. Your saliva contains the many minerals needed to help replace the calcium and phosphorous lost from your tooth's enamel in the earliest stages of tooth decay, which allows the enamel to repair itself. However, you can boost remineralisation with fluoride, which combines with calcium and phosphate ions to make the tooth enamel stronger and more resilient. A dentist can apply a fluoride treatment at your next appointment to help reverse the early effects of tooth decay.
  • Restoration. As tooth decay progresses, you may need restorative treatment. The dental professional will remove all the decayed tooth material and then fill the cleaned out cavity with a tooth restoration with a filling. If the decayed area is too great and there's not enough tooth remaining, your dentist might recommend a crown to cover or cap the damaged tooth.
  • Root canal. When your tooth's pulp becomes infected, you may need a root canal. This procedure will allow you to keep a badly damaged tooth instead of removing it. The dental professional will remove the infected pulp, clean the pulp chamber, and replace it with a filling.
  • Removal. If the tooth is severely decayed, it cannot be restored and will need to be removed. The dentist may recommend a bridge or dental implant to replace the missing tooth after your extraction is complete.

How Do You Prevent Cavities?

The good news is that you can avoid painful tooth decay and costly cavity treatments by taking preventative measures. Take care of your teeth by following these steps:

  1. Implement a proper at-home oral hygiene routine. Cavity prevention starts at home. Brush your teeth twice daily with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste, and don't forget to floss daily. If you would like additional protection, you can also try a fluoride mouth rinse. Consider eating a low sugar diet. At the same time, keeping an eye on the number of acidic foods and beverages you consume is essential.
  2. Visit the dentist regularly. Since no symptoms are associated with the early stages of cavity formation, you should see a dentist once or twice a year for a cleaning and examination. Your dentist or dental hygienist can identify trouble spots and help you prevent decay before it becomes severe. They can also apply dental sealants, a protective plastic coating for the deep grooves on the chewing surfaces of your teeth. This can prevent bacteria from collecting in these hard-to-reach areas.
  3. Eat tooth-healthy foods. Try to fill your plate with whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins. It is also good to limit sweetened beverages and sugary snacks that can fuel the cavity-forming process. Avoiding frequent snacking and drinks other than water throughout the day also helps prevent having repeated issues with your teeth from acid-creating bacteria.

Although cavities are common, they don't have to be common for you. Knowing how cavities are formed and what you can do to prevent them is a significant first step towards maintaining your oral health. Put these preventative oral care habits in place now, and take care of your teeth for years to come.