Tooth decay is a chronic problem among children in the United States, but children are not the only ones who suffer from decay. The tooth decay process can strike any one at any age. A commonly held belief is that sugar causes tooth decay, but sugars are not the direct cause of decay. Sugars attract pathogenic bacteria which excrete acids that cause decay. The bacteria feed upon the sugars so it is important to reduce the amount of sugars in your oral cavity. That is done by practicing proper oral hygiene which consists of brushing and flossing regularly and visiting your dentist twice a year. In today’s blog we discuss how a tooth decays.
Tooth decay, also known as dental caries, is the single most common chronic disease among children in the United States. It also affects at least one permanent tooth in over 90% of adults, and in severe cases, decay can lead to tooth loss, or the need for an extraction. The good news is that, despite its prevalence and potentially disastrous effects, tooth decay is also one of the most preventable diseases. With good hygiene and a dental checkup at least once every six months, you can defeat the forces behind tooth decay and save your teeth from trouble.
The Makeup of a Tooth
Though small, each one of your teeth is divided into two distinct sections; the crown and the root(s). The crown is the top, visible part of your tooth that rests above the gum line, and is comprised of layers. The outer layer of the crown, called tooth enamel, is made almost entirely of mineral crystals, and is the most resilient substance your body produces. Underneath enamel lies a dense, porous, bone-like material called dentin, which comprises the majority of your tooth. Tooth decay works to infect dentin by first destroying enamel, and once it settles in, the infection can eventually reach the nerves and blood vessels, or pulp, at the tooth’s center.
The Nature of Dental Plaque
Even if you’ve never had a cavity before, you’ve likely felt the sticky stuff that coats your teeth now and then, called dental plaque. It’s a byproduct of over 600 kinds of oral bacteria, and the biofilm protects your mouth’s germs while they cling to your teeth and along your gum line. As living things, your mouth’s microbes survive by consuming nutrients from your food and beverages, and controlling the substance they produce is one of the most important aspects of effective cavity prevention.
The Dangers of Sugar (and Other Carbohydrates)
Remember being warned as a child that eating too much candy will rot your teeth? It’s as true today as it was then, but the real danger lies beyond just sugar. Along with starches and other fermentable carbohydrates, sugar feeds certain oral bacteria that convert them into acid. For about 20-30 minutes after eating, acid can attack your tooth enamel and deprive your teeth of minerals they need to strengthen it. Once the acid dissipates, however, your teeth can replenish their mineral supply and slowly remineralize their enamel.
Tracking, and Treating, Tooth Decay Development
Acid attacks against your teeth are known as enamel erosion, and if they happen too often, your tooth enamel will eventually become too weak to protect your teeth. Excessive snacking can produce unreasonable amounts of acid, and poor hygiene can allow acid-producing bacteria to overwhelm your teeth. If Dr. Fondriest spots signs of enamel erosion during your routine dental exam, he may recommend fluoride treatments, as well as improved hygiene practices, to prevent the onset of tooth decay.
If enamel is compromised and bacteria infect your dentin, Dr. Fondriest can clean and sanitize the cavity, then fill it with a dental filling, usually made from tooth-colored composite resin. In extreme cases, such as when bacteria reach the tooth’s pulp, root canal therapy may be necessary to save the tooth and stop the infection from spreading.
How to Prevent Cavities
If you’ve had tooth decay, your tooth won’t heal after it’s been treated. Your dental filling, and possibly a dental crown, will have to protect your tooth for the rest of its life. Fortunately, you can still prevent cavities from forming in your other permanent teeth by brushing and flossing your teeth at least twice a day and sticking to your schedule of routine checkups and cleanings. Refrain from snacking too often, and rinse your mouth with water whenever you can’t brush after a meal. For best results, make sure your toothpaste contains fluoride, which is known to strengthen tooth enamel by bonding to its surface.
Steps in the Tooth Decaying Process
Step #1: Early Decay
Sugars from food and beverages remain on your teeth after eating and drinking. The sugars attract bacteria that feed on them and produce acids. The acids begin to attack and demineralize the tooth enamel (the thin, hard crystal-like layer that protects the dentin and pulp of the tooth) which causes a chalky white spot on the tooth. This is the first stage of tooth decay. At this point the decay can be reversed by the enzymes in your saliva, and the use of fluoride products. Both remineralize tooth enamel.
If demineralization continues and the surface of the enamel is broken, decay reaches into the dentin (the softer layer of tooth structure). Dentin cannot restore itself as enamel can so the decay needs to be removed and the cavity filled.
If the decay is left untreated it can spread through the dentin and into the pulp (the living tissue containing nerves and blood vessels). If the pulp becomes infected the tooth may need to be extracted.
Let us help you steer clear of tooth decay
Despite its prevalence and potentially disastrous effects, tooth decay is one of the most preventable chronic diseases in kids and adults alike.
Aside from providing expert general and restorative dentistry services to our community, Dr. James Fondriest also holds highly-respected academic appointments at the Pankey Institute in Key Biscayne, FL, and the Spear Institute in Scottsdale, AZ, and he is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Prosthodontics at the University of Florida Dental School. Dr. Fondriest combines his impressive array of experience with modern technology and caring, compassionate, and knowledgeable staff, and we proudly serve patients from Chicago and all surrounding communities. To schedule your consultation, call our office today at (847) 234-0517.