Dental Cavities: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

dental cavities

Dental cavities are common. Even individuals who practice impeccable oral hygiene can still develop tooth decay.

Left untreated, this condition can lead to discomfort and other serious long term problems. Fortunately, there are several treatments available to address the issue, including fillings, crowns, and other custom invisible dental restorations. In this article, we will discuss what causes dental cavities as well as common treatments. We will also explore the topic of cavity prevention to keep your oral health in optimal condition.

What Causes Dental Cavities?

Plaque causes dental cavities. Here, we will take a look at that process, from beginning to end:

Plaque forms on the teeth surfaces

A clear, sticky substance, plaque forms after eating – especially if lots of sugars and starches are consumed. When starchy foods stay on the teeth, bacteria begin to feed on them, resulting in the build up of plaque. If plaque is not routinely removed, it will harden into tartar and ultimately create an environment where oral bacteria thrive.

Acids in the plaque attack the tooth enamel

Dental plaque contains acids that compromise the hard, outer shell of the tooth. Once the enamel erodes, bacteria can reach the next layer of the tooth – the dentin. Softer than enamel, dentin contains tiny tubes that reach the pulp. When the dentin is compromised, it can lead to discomfort and sensitivity.

Tooth decay spreads throughout every tooth layer

Bacteria continue to travel through each layer of the tooth until they reach the very center. When decay reaches the blood vessels of the pulp, it causes pain and inflammation. In many cases, discomfort can even radiate throughout the jaw and up to the ear. Worst of all, decay can actually spread from one tooth to another, causing a domino effect of dental issues.

Other Risk Factors

While dental plaque is the culprit of tooth decay, there are certain factors that can increase the risk of cavities. Here are just a few:

  • Eating certain foods and drinks: Saliva naturally washes away food particles and debris. However, some foods cling to your teeth, such as dried fruit, cookies, cake, and other sweet foods.
  • Tooth location: Cavities are most common on premolars and molars. Back teeth have deep grooves and fissures, which make it easy for food and bacteria to become trapped.
  • Dry mouth: Saliva naturally cleanses the mouth and washes debris from the teeth’ surfaces. It can also help counter acid production from plaque and tartar buildup. Individuals who have chronic dry mouth are much more susceptible to tooth decay and other oral health issues.
  • Age: Tooth decay is most common in the very young and the elderly. Young children and teens often develop cavities due to poor oral hygiene. Meanwhile, older adults may have medical conditions that require taking certain medications that decrease saliva production, leading to cavities.
  • Old dental restorations: Old dental fillings, crowns, and other restorations can crack or weaken over time. As a result, plaque and bacteria accumulate in these areas and lead to decay and infection.
  • GERD: Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid flows into the oral cavity. When this acid comes in contact with the teeth’ surfaces, the enamel erodes, making the teeth more vulnerable to damage and decay.
  • Eating disorders: Bulimia and anorexia are two common risk factors for dental cavities. Consistent purging can wear down dental enamel over time. Furthermore, eating disorders can have a negative impact on natural saliva production.
  • Inadequate fluoride: Individuals who do not drink fluoridated water have a much higher risk for tooth decay. Some fluoride is essential. This mineral has been added to many toothpastes and mouth rinses to help keep your enamel strong and resilient to cavities.
  • Bedtime infant feeding: It’s common to feed babies and toddlers before bedtime. However, when the teeth are not properly cleaned afterward, this can be detrimental. Sugars found in many popular beverages, such as milk, formula, or juice, stay on the teeth for several hours. As a result, cavity causing bacteria levels increase.

Signs and Symptoms of Dental Cavities

The symptoms of tooth decay can vary for each individual. Some of the most common warning signs include:

  • Sensitivity to heat, cold, or sugary foods
  • A spontaneous toothache
  • Black, white, or brown stains on the tooth surfaces
  • Visible pits or holes in your enamel
  • Pain or discomfort when biting down
  • Difficulty chewing due to food impaction

Some individuals may not even notice symptoms, especially in the early stages. That’s why routine dental checkups are so important. Your dentist can usually spot problems and treat them before they worsen.

Treatments for Dental Cavities

There are several treatments available to address dental cavities. The type of procedure recommended depends on the severity of the decay as well as the long term prognosis of the tooth. In the sections below, we will explore the most common treatments for tooth decay.

Dental Fillings

If the cavity is still relatively small, it can be addressed with a dental filling material. Historically, the majority of fillings have been done with silver. While some dentists still place silver amalgam fillings, most prefer tooth colored fillings made of composite resin. Not only do these restorations blend in with your smile, they are also less invasive than their conventional counterparts.

To place a dental filling, your dentist must first remove any decayed or damaged portions of the tooth. This process is completed under local anesthesia for your comfort.

Next, the void in the tooth structure is filled with a composite resin material. The dentist molds and shapes the material, ensuring that the cavity is completely filled. The material is then cured – or hardened – with a special dental light. Finally, your dentist will check your bite and make any necessary adjustments.

Inlays and Onlays

Sometimes decay is too advanced for a filling but not significant enough to warrant a crown. In these instances, an inlay or onlay can be placed. These custom restorations – sometimes called indirect fillings – are crafted from a variety of dental materials, including resin and ceramic. Inlays and onlays fit into the tooth structure much like a puzzle piece.

This procedure usually requires two dental visits. During the first appointment, impressions must be taken. These molds are then sent to a dental lab for the fabrication of your new restoration. While the lab is making your inlay or onlay, your dentist will place a temporary restoration to protect your tooth in the meantime.

Once the final restoration has been created, your second appointment will take place. During this visit, your dentist will ensure your inlay or onlay looks and feels like it should. Finally, the restoration is permanently bonded into place using high-quality dental cement. After assessing your bite and making any necessary adjustments, your tooth is polished to a natural looking shine.

Dental Crowns

If decay is extensive, a crown will likely be recommended. Higher quality crowns are custom crafted for your anatomy, a crown covers the entire tooth structure, offering protection and reinforcement.

Dental crown placement typically requires two visits. However, if your dentist has a CEREC® milling machine or an on-site laboratory, same day crowns are available.

Before placing a dental crown, the tooth must be prepared. This involves removing decay and reshaping the tooth structure so it can properly support your new restoration.

Once the tooth has been prepped, impressions are taken and sent to a dental lab. There, a trained technician will create your crown to fit in seamlessly with your smile. During the fabrication process, a temporary crown is placed to protect your tooth.

When the final restoration is ready, the temporary crown is removed and the new one is permanently bonded into place. Your dentist will assess the color and fit of your new restoration and make any necessary final adjustments.

How to Prevent Tooth Decay

Tooth decay cannot be prevented altogether. But there are certain steps you can take to significantly reduce your risk of cavities.

  • Brush two to three times every day: To minimize plaque build up, brush at least twice a day. If possible, brush about 30 minutes after every meal. Be sure to choose a soft bristled toothbrush, as hard brushes can damage the enamel.
  • Floss daily: Cleaning between the teeth is just as important as brushing. Individuals who floss daily significantly reduce their risk of decay, gum disease, and other oral health issues.
  • Choose cavity fighting products: Fluoride is a key component in keeping your enamel strong and healthy. It actually remineralizes the hard, outer layer of the teeth and protects your smile from decay. When you shop for fluoride toothpastes and rinses, be sure to look for the ADA Seal of Approval.
  • Consume sugary foods in moderation: The bacteria in your mouth feed off sugar compounds. Eating or drinking foods with high sugar content attracts bacteria and increases bacterial activity. Carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, and bread are also considered a food source because these foods contain sugar compounds as well.
  • Consider preventative treatments: Many patients think that fluoride treatments and dental sealants are just for kids. On the contrary, these preventative measures are recommended for patients of all ages. If you are prone to tooth decay, talk to your dentist about preventative care.
  • Visit your dentist regularly: A major aspect of proper dental care is attending routine exams and cleanings. During these appointments, your hygienist can clean hard to reach areas that harbor plaque and bacteria. Your dentist will also perform a full assessment to ensure there are no potential problems.

The importance of early diagnosis of dental cavities

The sooner tooth decay is treated, the better. A slow response to fixing decay can lead to a high risk for needing root canals or tooth loss. That’s why early detection is so important. Treating cavities early is not only better for your oral health, it’s also more affordable. To learn more about how to prevent cavities and about the many state of the art treatment options.