It’s that time of the year again…everyone seems to be sneezing and coughing. Did you know that tooth decay is a common disorder, second only to the common cold? Tooth decay is a common cause of pain and tooth loss. Bacteria are normally found in your mouth. These bacteria change foods — especially sugar and starch — into acids. Bacteria, acid, food pieces, and saliva combine in the mouth to form a sticky substance called plaque which adheres to the teeth. It is most common on the back molars, just above the gum line on all teeth, and at the edges of fillings. Plaque that is not removed from the teeth turns into a substance called tartar or calculus. Plaque begins to build up on teeth within 20 minutes after eating. If it is not removed, tooth decay will begin.
Why does tooth decay occur? The acids in plaque damage the enamel covering your teeth, and create holes in the tooth (cavities). Cavities usually do not hurt, unless they grow very large and affect nerves or cause a tooth fracture. An untreated cavity can lead to a tooth abscess. Untreated tooth decay also destroys the inside of the tooth (pulp), which will require more extensive treatment, or worse case removal of the tooth. Carbohydrates (sugars and starches) increase the risk of tooth decay. Sticky foods are more harmful than non-sticky foods because they remain on the teeth. Frequent snacking increases the time that acids are in contact with the surface of the tooth.
Do cavities hurt? There may be no symptoms. If symptoms occur, they may include: tooth pain or achy feeling, particularly after sweet, hot, or cold foods and drinks, or you may see visible pits or holes in the teeth.
So how do you treat decay and how can it be prevented? Most cavities are discovered in the early stages during routine dental checkups. A dental exam may show that the surface of the tooth is soft, or the decay may be initially discovered by dental X-rays – many times, decay cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is one reason Dr. Still recommends yearly ‘bitewing’ check up X-Ray, and a full series every three years. Depending on the extent of the decay, it is treated by composite tooth-colored fillings or by full-coverage crowns. If the decay has extended into the nerve of the tooth, a root canal may be needed. If left untreated, the tooth can become severely infected, abscess and potentially need to be extracted.
This is why we recommend regular dental checkups at least three times per year, dental X-rays and good home care. Also, reducing the amount of sugar — especially sugary drinks and juices — can help prevent cavities. You may consider brushing your teeth or rinsing your mouth after eating sticky foods.