Healthy Living

What Is a Cavity?

Tooth Decay and Cavities: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

A cavity is a result of tooth decay, which is a damage that occurs due to poor oral health and dental plaque on the tooth’s surface. Cavities usually start really small and when they are left untreated, they gradually become bigger. Anyone who has teeth, including babies, can develop cavities. For this reason, cavities and tooth decay are regarded as some of the most common health problems around the world. Most people do not recognize the problem since cavities are not painful in the beginning. However, any tooth decay can be early detected through regular dental checkups. 

Symptoms

The symptoms usually depend on the severity of tooth decay. However, its common symptoms include:

  • Toothache 
  • Tooth discoloration (black or white-colored stain) 
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Holes in the teeth
  • Bad breath

Risk Factors

Saliva is known to help in preventing plaque from getting attached to the teeth. It also helps wash off and digest food particles. Without enough flow of saliva, the teeth are more prone to rapid decay along with developing gum disease. Other factors that may contribute to tooth decay are:

  • Size and shape of the tooth: Small teeth that have numerous deep pits and grooves are more prone to the formation of cavities than large teeth with fewer pits or shallow grooves. These pits and grooves can provide more area to accommodate the buildup of plaque. They are also more difficult to clean or brush properly. 
  • Enamel thickness: The enamel is the main defense of the tooth against the development of cavities. Thus, it would take longer for a cavity to develop if you have a thick enamel on your tooth. 
  • Teeth position and bite: Having crooked or overlapping teeth can be difficult to clean. It also enables plaque buildup in more areas. A poor bite can also cause your enamel to quickly wear down on your teeth, leaving the soft dentin exposed. For this reason, an orthodontic treatment (braces) is a good preventive measure against cavities. Aligners and braces can effectively help straighten teeth and position them in correct alignment. 
  • Time and sequence of tooth eruption: Children who get their permanent teeth early are also at a higher risk of developing cavities since they could not practice proper oral hygiene yet.

Causes

Cavities are mainly caused by the buildup of plaque, a sticky substance wherein bacteria thrive. Aside from bacteria, plaque is a combination of food particles, saliva, and acid. When plaque is not washed away by saliva or when you do not brush your teeth after eating, bacteria will eat up the sugar from the foods you eat and produces an acid, which cannot be easily get rid by your saliva. The acid produced by bacteria starts to dissolve the minerals that protect the enamel leading to small penetrable holes in your teeth. As the enamel weakens, the risk for tooth decay also increases. It is the reason why regular toothbrushing is very important. 

Every individual is at risk of developing tooth cavities, especially if the following factors are present:

Cavities are mostly seen to occur in the back teeth since their grooves can easily trap any kind of food particles. They are also more difficult to clean when it comes to brushing and flossing, making them more prone to the formation of cavities. 

Treatment

Treatment for tooth decays usually depend on their severity. If tooth decays are caught early before cavities are formed, you may be advised to get fluoride treatments or brushing your teeth using a fluoride toothpaste. If the decay has penetrated deep into the enamel, the following dental treatments are usually recommended:

  • Crowns: When the cavity turns out to be severe, then the dentist may look to place a custom-made fit cap on the tooth to replace its natural crown. However, before starting off with the procedure of fitting the crown over the tooth, the dentist will remove the decayed material to avoid it from getting worse.
  • Fillings of the tooth: If a cavity has already formed, dentists usually remove the portion with decay using a drill. The hole is then filled with materials, such as gold, porcelain, silver alloy, or a composite resin. All of these materials are safe, although some people have concerns about the use of amalgams, which are mercury-based fillings. According to the FDA, American Dental Association, and other government health agencies, amalgams are safe to use. 
  • Root canal: When the tooth decay becomes so severe that it leads to the death of the nerves, the dentist would then recommend the procedure of a root canal to save the tooth and avoid its removal. The dentist would ideally remove the nerve tissues along with the blood tissues and the decayed section of the tooth. The dentist would then check for any kind of infections inside and apply medications to the roots only when needed. After this step, he would fill the tooth and then place a crown over it.

How to deal with tooth pain?

Tooth decay or tooth cavities are known to cause a lot of pain and discomfort. However, you can make use of the following remedies to find temporary relief:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: OTC medications for pain can help you deal with tooth pain. These medications only provide temporary pain relief, so you still need to see a dentist.
  • Practice proper oral hygiene: It is important to regularly brush your teeth and clean all regions of the mouth. After every meal or snack, ensure to gargle your mouth with water to clear out stuck food particles in your teeth. 
  • Keep a tab of what you consume: It is better to stay away from hot or cold food items or foods that can worsen tooth sensitivity or damage. 

Complications

Certain complications may arise if cavities are not detected early. They include:

  • Difficulty chewing
  • Ongoing tooth pain
  • Tooth abscess (presence of pus around the tooth)
  • Chipped tooth
  • Systemic diseases such as sepsis in severe oral infections (potentially life-threatening)

Further delay in the diagnosis, as well as treatment, can lead to a permanent and irreversible damage to the tooth. In such cases, the only method to get the cavities fixed is for the dentist to remove the decayed portion of the tooth and get it replaced by using an implant or dental bridge.

Prevention

Keep cavities away by practicing proper oral hygiene. Other preventive steps you can take include:

  • Limiting snacks in between meals whenever possible
  • Brushing your teeth at least twice daily (when you wake up in the morning and before hitting the bed) with the use of a fluoride toothpaste. 
  • Getting dental sealants
  • Flossing at least once a day
  • Limiting the intake of sugary and acidic foods, such as candies, sodas, refined carbs, or juices

Consume the following foods and drinks to fight tooth decay:

  • Calcium-rich foods 
  • Water with fluoride
  • Fruits and vegetables 
  • Green tea or unsweetened black tea
  • Xylitol sugarless chewing gums

Apart from following the above-mentioned precautions, it is also important to regularly visit your dentist to ensure proper oral health and prevent future cavities from forming. 

Key Takeaways

  • A cavity is a result of tooth decay, which is a damage that occurs due to poor oral health and dental plaque on the tooth’s surface.
  • Cavities are mainly caused by the buildup of plaque, a sticky substance wherein bacteria thrive. Aside from bacteria, plaque is a combination of food particles, saliva, and acid. 
  • Any tooth decay can be early detected through regular dental checkups.