Tooth decay, also known as dental caries or cavities, is a breakdown of teeth due to the activity of oral bacteria. Cavity-causing bacteria covert the sugar on the teeth into acid, which then erode and soften the teeth.
Initially, there may be no symptoms. As the cavity deepens, the affected tooth may become sensitive to hot, cold or sweet foods. In very advanced stages, a tooth weakened by extensive internal decay can suddenly fracture under normal chewing forces. When the decay has progressed enough to allow the bacteria to overwhelm the pulp tissue in the center of the tooth, a toothache can result and the pain may become constant. Death of the pulp tissue and infection are common consequences. The tooth will no longer be sensitive to hot or cold, but can be very tender to pressure. Complications may include inflammation of the tissue around the tooth, tooth loss, and infection or abscess formation. In highly progressed cases, infection can spread from the tooth to the surrounding soft tissues.
During your routine exam and check up, your dentist will inspect your teeth and will be able to detect cavities with the help of dental x-rays. It is always better to treat cavities early to prevent further damage to your teeth.
Prevention includes regular cleaning of the teeth, reduced consumption of sugary and acidic foods, and small amounts of fluoride. Brushing the teeth twice per day and flossing between the teeth once a day is highly recommended. Fluoride sources include tap water (check with your local municipality to see if your water is fluorinated), fluoride toothpaste and/or fluoride mouth rinse. Screening can result in earlier detection.
Treatment for a tooth with a cavity is typically a dental filling. Teeth do not regrow, and may continue to decay if left untreated. Sometimes a tooth may require a crown if too much tooth structure is lost due to decay. Once the cavity reachs the nerve in the center of the tooth, a root canal treatment is necessary prior to a filling and crown. In more severe cases, the tooth may be too decayed to be saved, and will need to be extracted to prevent further medical issues. A dental implant, bridge, or denture may be necessary to replace a tooth lost to an advanced cavity to prevent other teeth from shifting.