Dental Decay: Causes and Treatments
What is dental decay?
Dental decay, also known as dental cavities or caries, is permanent damage to the tooth. Hard tooth structures (enamel and dentine) become soft as a result of bacterial activities.
When the damage is minimal, the tooth is usually without symptoms. Small decay often manifests as sensitivity while eating or drinking something sweet, cold or hot. Constant dental pain is a sign of progression of a deep decay into the centre of the tooth (pulp). An abscess (a severe infection) could form as the infection spreads from the teeth to the adjacent tissues such as bone and gingiva.
What causes dental decay?
Dental decay is caused by bacteria that grow in an acidic environment. After meals, bacteria living in the mouth convert the sugar and remaining food on the teeth surfaces or between the teeth into acid. The acid then attacks the hard (mineralized) tooth surface, which becomes soft (demineralized) and forms holes or cavities inside the tooth. Lack of saliva also increases the risk of developing dental decay. Saliva has an important role in washing away sugar and food debris, neutralizing acidic environment produced by bacteria, and providing calcium and phosphates for remineralization of the tooth surface.
How can I prevent dental decay?
Dental decay affects people of all ages, especially children, teenagers and older adults. It can be effectively prevented by following regular oral hygiene habits. It is usually simpler and more affordable to prevent tooth decay than to treat tooth decay or to replace a decayed tooth.
To prevent dental decay:
- Brush and floss after meals to eliminate food stuck on the surface or between the teeth
- Avoid repetitive consumption of sugar as bacteria convert it quickly into acid,
- Fluoride (in drinking water, toothpaste, mouth rinses or at the dentist) is powerful in preventing dental decay as it binds to the outer layer of the tooth and makes it more resistant against acidic attack,
- Visit your dentist or dental hygienist regularly for an exam or a professional cleaning to detect any potential risk factor at an early stage.
What are the treatments for dental decay?
Treatment options for dental decay depend on the extent of the decay and the amount of damage to the tooth structure.
In the early stages when the decay is limited to the outer protective (enamel) layer, professional fluoride application (liquid, gel, foam or varnish) can arrest small lesions and remineralizes tooth surface. If the decay reaches the dentine underneath the enamel, a restoration (a filling) is often indicated. A root canal treatment may be required if the decay progressed into the centre (pulp) of the tooth. If the damage is extensive and the tooth is weakened by the decay, a crown instead of restoration might be needed. However, if the tooth is badly damaged, extraction of the tooth could be the only treatment option. A consultation with a dentist is essential to detect early decay and determine potential risk factors before any damage happens to the teeth.