How to Prevent Tooth Decay
Tooth decay, or cavities, is the damaged area in the teeth that develops into tiny holes over time. It is the most common dental problem that can potentially result in severe toothaches, infection, and eventual tooth loss when left untreated. It affects all ages—everyone who has teeth, including infants, can get cavities.
Stages of tooth decay
- White spotting or discolouration
Exposure to acids produced by plaque bacteria causes the enamel to begin to lose minerals. At this stage, white spots or discolouration on the surface of your teeth start to appear.
- Decaying enamel
At this stage, you will notice that the white spots turn brownish. You will also begin to experience tooth sensitivity to hot, cold, and sweet foods or beverages.
- Decaying dentin
Once the enamel becomes too damaged, the decay will reach the tissue beneath the enamel, which is the dentin. At this point, you will experience some level of pain that would require you to undergo treatment from a dental professional.
- Pulp damage
The pulp is the innermost layer of your tooth. When decay penetrates the tooth’s pulp, it may become irritated and start to swell. Massive mouth pain or even jaw pain may occur.
- Tooth abscess
This is the most dangerous stage. If the bacteria progresses and invades the tip of the tooth’s root beneath the pulp, it will cause infection. The increased inflammation can lead to a pocket of pus forming at the bottom of your tooth. The infection can spread to the tissues and bones, even to the bloodstream, if untreated.
The causes of tooth decay
Plaque is a colorless, sticky film substance that is embedded in the teeth. It is formed from a mixture of leftover food particles and saliva in your mouth or left on your teeth. Bacteria that thrive inside your mouth produce acids that destroy tooth enamel, resulting in tooth decay. The cavities that are formed in the enamel can continue to spread deeper into the layers of your teeth.
If tooth decay is left untreated, it will cause pain and infection that can spread to other parts of your mouth and even cause tooth loss.
Factors in the development of cavities:
- Bacteria in the mouth that thrive on sugary, starchy foods and drinks convert these carbohydrates into acids.
- Acids that mix with food particles and saliva form plaque that covers the teeth.
- Poor oral hygiene (brushing and flossing) produces acids in plaque that dissolve tooth enamel and create holes, or cavities.
Risk factors for tooth decay
Tooth decay can happen to anybody at all ages, but there are several factors that can increase the risks:
- Tooth location and function
Back molars are most vulnerable to tooth decay. Unlike the front teeth, which are used to bite foods, the molars are used to grind and chew. Molars are covered with pits and longer grooves called fissures, which both trap food particles. If you notice, the molar top isn’t smooth; it is designed like bumps and valleys—making it harder to access when brushing.
- Sweet and starchy foods and drinks
Foods that stick to the teeth for a long time, like ice cream, sodas, cake, cookies, hard candies, and chips, are more likely to cause decay than foods that are easily washed away by saliva.
Constant snacking, especially with sugary drinks, gives mouth bacteria more energy to produce acids. These acids attack the teeth and wear them down. For babies, bedtime feeding with milk, juice, or other sugary liquids remains on their teeth for long hours, feeding the decay-causing bacteria. Similar damage can occur to toddlers drinking from a sippy cup filled with these beverages.
- Poor brushing
If the teeth aren’t brushed soon after eating or drinking, plaque forms quickly and decay development can begin.
- Fluoride Deficiency
Fluoride, as a naturally occurring mineral, helps prevent cavities. It’s a common ingredient in toothpaste and mouth washes.
- Young and old age
As much as cavities are common in young children, older adults are at a higher risk as well. As you age, your teeth will wear down and your gums may fall off, making them more susceptible to tooth decay. Older adults taking medications have increased their risk of tooth decay as medications can reduce saliva flow, which washes away food particles and bacteria in the mouth.
- Dry mouth or xerostomia
Dry mouth is caused by an inadequate amount of saliva, which helps wash away food and plaque from your teeth to avoid tooth decay. There are some medications and medical conditions that can reduce saliva production in the mouth.
- Worn-down fillings or dental devices
As time goes by, dental fillings or crowns can weaken and significantly begin to break down or become loose-fitting. This condition allows plaque to build up rapidly and decay to begin underneath them. If you have loose fillings, worn out crowns or dental devices, visit your dental professional.
- Heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
When stomach acid flows into the mouth, it wears away the enamel of your teeth, causing significant tooth damage.
- Eating disorders
If you are experiencing anorexia or bulimia, stomach acid flowing from repeated vomiting washes over the teeth and can lead to significant tooth erosion and cavities.
Tooth decay prevention
One piece of good news about tooth decay is that it can be prevented. Good oral hygiene and habits can help you avoid cavities and tooth decay.
Here are some tips:
- Reduce your sugar or carbohydrate intake and have it less often.
Chewing sugar-free gum after a meal can help your mouth produce more saliva, which helps cancel out any acids that have formed.
- At least twice a day, brush your teeth. Make sure you brush the inner, outer, and biting areas of your teeth as well as the gumline for around two minutes.
- Floss at least once a day. Flossing helps to remove plaque from between your teeth or areas an ordinary toothbrush can’t reach.
- Right amount of fluoride. Fluoride can greatly help dental health by strengthening the tooth enamel, making it more resistant to tooth decay. Ask your dentist to prescribe a toothpaste with the right amount of fluoride content for you.
- Visit your dentist regularly. Your dentist can spot tooth decay early on and treat the condition before it worsens. They can show you the proper way to clean. They will demonstrate the techniques and recommend which products to use. They will give you the necessary guidance on proper diet and lifestyle that are relevant to your oral health.