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Tooth Decay (Cavities) 

What causes tooth decay?

Tooth decay is caused by an infectious disease called dental caries, which is the formation of hole, or “cavities”, in your teeth by acid-producing bacteria.  It is the world’s most common infectious disease.  There are a number of risk factors that determine the presence and extent of tooth decay.  And for people with increased risk for caries, regular brushing and flossing may not prevent their teeth from decaying.

Here are the risk factors for tooth decay:

  • The amount and type of bacteria in your mouth that causes tooth decay
  • The ability of your saliva to neutralize or buffer the acid produced by these bacteria
  • The mineral composition or hardness of your enamel
  • Your dental home care routine
  • Your diet

What can I do to reduce or eliminate tooth decay?

The first step is to restore teeth that have cavities.  The decay must be removed and the tooth structure must be repaired.  Your dentist may suggest placing dental sealants or small preventive fillings on teeth with high risk of decay.  There are also important oral hygiene practices you must maintain daily.

How should I take care of my teeth at home?

The following options may be recommended by your dentist:

  • Special oral rinses that reduce the amount of carie-causing bacteria in your mouth
  • Oral aids, such as chewing gum, that increases the amount of saliva
  • Mineral applications of fluoride, calcium, and/or phosphate to your teeth to harden the enamel
  • Xylitol containing products to decrease mouth acidity
  • Customized home dental care instruction
  • Customized diets

Discuss these with your dentist so you can find a plan that works for you.

What happens if I choose to do nothing about my tooth decay?

If your cavity is left untreated, the bacteria in tooth decay will eventually reach the nerve and blood supply of your tooth.  This may cause pain and infection, that will require more complex and costly treatments, such as a root canal or tooth extraction.  If the cavity is too big to treat, then the damaged tooth may not be restorable, and may require extraction.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.