Tooth decay is one of the most common ailments impacting Americans, second only to the common cold. Cavities can affect people of all ages. Everyone from toddlers to senior citizens can be impacted by dental cavities.
Despite how prevalent and preventable tooth decay is, many people fail to implement good dental hygiene practices that can dissuade cavities from forming.
What is a Cavity?
Cavities, also known as dental caries, are holes in the teeth. These holes form once the enamel has been significantly damaged. The decay begins to spread into the interior material of the tooth, called dentin.
Cavities are often painful and grow worse if left untreated. The open hole that leads directly into the tooth is particularly vulnerable to infection. Cavities can lead to tooth loss or significant oral health issues if they aren’t treated promptly.
What Causes Cavities?
Cavities are a direct result of tooth decay. They begin with the formation of plaque. Plaque is a thin, sticky substance that forms over the surface of your teeth. This substance overtakes your mouth’s natural biofilm, a protective barrier your body forms to shelter your teeth from harm.
Plaque consists of sugar and starch that you’ve eaten, but allowed to remain in your mouth. Sugar is one of bacteria’s favorite things to eat. They’re drawn directly to the surface of your teeth to eat off all the sugar that has accumulated there. As they eat the sugar, they process it and excrete it as an acid byproduct. This acid sticks into the film of the plaque and rests on your teeth.
Over time, plaque hardens. Plaque can begin to harden in a substance called tartar, or dental calculus, in as little as 12 hours. This means that failing to brush your teeth for a single day can result in a layer of hard tartar encapsulating the surface of your teeth. This tartar locks in the acids produced by the bacteria, soaking your enamel in their corrosive byproducts.
This corrosion finds or creates weak spots in the enamel, eroding it away to create a path directly to the tooth’s dentin layer. Dentin is naturally sensitive and porous. Once the acids have reached the dentin, there’s no way to undo this process.
Dentin is naturally full of small holes that lead to nerve endings. Acid can burn those porous openings, widening them and creating cavities.
Once the process has started, it cannot be reversed. Enamel cannot repair itself, and damaged dentin is lost forever. The only option is to have cavities professionally repaired by a dentist.
How Many Cavities Does The Average Person Get?
Adults between the ages of 20 and 64 show significant signs of tooth decay. One in four adults will have at least one cavity. Adults in this demographic have an average of more than 3 missing or decayed teeth, and more than 13 decayed or missing tooth surfaces.
Cavities are alarmingly common among the adult American population.
Cavities can form as soon as teeth form. Toddlers can form cavities as a result of inadequate toothbrushing. This most commonly happens innocently and not as a result of child neglect. Parents try to be mindful of their toddlers when brushing their teeth, using inadequate pressure or brushing for too short of a duration to avoid causing their toddlers discomfort.
Children are also prone to cavities. Children who brush without supervision aren’t ordinarily thorough, and may brush for too short of a period of time. It’s important for adults to supervise children while they brush and explain the importance of proper dental hygiene habits. Children should not brush unsupervised until they’ve mastered proper brushing.
How Are Cavities Treated?
Cavities are treated in different ways. Treatment depends on the severity of the cavity, any conditions that exist in conjunction with the cavity, the extent of the damage the cavity has caused, and the age of the patient. Your dentist will provide whatever treatment he or she deems best.
Treating Cavities in Children
Cavities impacting “baby teeth” are sometimes treated differently in children. If the tooth impacted by a cavity is already somewhat loose, a dentist may recommend removing the tooth and making room for the healthy adult tooth to come through in its place. There isn’t much sense in repairing a tooth that will soon be at the end of its useful lifespan.
Cavities in children’s permanent teeth or cavities in toddlers who still have years to go before their adult teeth will emerge are usually treated with direct fillings. The cavity is cleaned and prepared for a filling, and a permanent material is placed into the hole to prevent the spread of erosion and protect the nerves within the teeth.
Direct fillings are fairly straightforward. The hole in the tooth is directly filled with a type of resin material designed to match the color of the tooth. The cavity may be drilled further to prepare the tooth to receive the permanent filling, assuring that it sticks and removing any traces of decay that may otherwise be trapped and left to progress after the filling has been placed.
The resin is placed inside of the hole and allowed to cure, sometimes by UV light. This restores the natural look and function of the impacted tooth. At the end of the procedure, there will be no evidence that a cavity ever existed.
Indirect fillings are used when a cavity is so large that it impacts the structure of a tooth. They’re a step in between direct fillings and dental crowns. An impression is made of the tooth and sent to a lab. The lab will recreate the portion of the tooth destroyed by the cavity and decay that came with that cavity. The dentist will then cement the partial artificial tooth to the existing tooth.
If your cavity has caused enough decay to erode or deform the surface of your tooth, all of the damaged tooth needs to be removed. Your dentist will salvage as much as possible, leading a tooth stump made to accommodate a crown.
A crown is a piece of artificial tooth that is cemented to this stump. It fits on your tooth snugly, just like a hat. This crown protects the remaining portion of the tooth from further erosion. Some materials used for crowns are made to mimic the appearance of an actual tooth.
Some crowns are made of metal and are obvious in their appearance. You can request a material that appears natural and your dentist will accommodate you whenever possible.
If your cavity has impacted the sensitive pulp of your teeth, there is sometimes no turning back. If the process has only just begun, your dentist may be able to save your tooth with a procedure called a root canal. Dead or heavily infected tooth pulp is removed. Your dentist may require you to take antibiotic medications to cure any infection that may have occurred as a result of your cavity.
After the dead pulp is removed and the area is clean and free from infection, a filling is used to close the tooth to prevent any outside bacteria from ever reaching the pulp again.
If the tooth is too far gone to be salvaged by a root canal, it will have to be extracted. In cases of severe pain or infection, your dentist may recommend an immediate extraction without entertaining the notion of a root canal.
Once the tooth is gone and your gums have healed, you have the option of replacing the missing tooth with a dental implant or a bridge. A dental implant is a single artificial tooth secured into the jaw by a special kind of screw. A bridge uses the healthy adjoining teeth to support a false tooth in the area where the decayed tooth was removed. Bridges are generally less expensive and complicated than dental implants.
How Can I Prevent Cavities?
Cavities can be avoided by eating a healthy diet and practicing excellent dental hygiene. You should brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes per session. Flossing before bed will help to prevent decaying food particles from creating havoc in your mouth overnight. An antibacterial mouthwash can help to kill some of the bacteria responsible for causing tooth decay.
Using a naturally remineralizing toothpaste can help to fortify weakened enamel that may otherwise be open to attack by the acid spewing bacteria that live on plaque.
Cavities are extremely common but highly preventable. Many Americans don’t realize that their dental hygiene habits are inadequate. Make sure you’re visiting your dentist at least twice a year for regular checkups and cleanings. He or she can spot the makings of cavities early and help to treat them before they become painful or complicated.