Tooth decay occurs when acids from the food that you eat and those produced from the activities of bacteria in the mouth disintegrate the tooth’s enamel.
Whenever you drink or eat foods that contain starch or sugar, the bacteria in your mouth digest the sugar or starch compounds, producing acids that slowly eat away the enamel of your teeth. The foods that contain sugar or starch include bread, milk, juice, cookies, soda, and candy among others. Foods that contain acid also increase the level of acid in your mouth and thus contribute to tooth decay. Examples of such foods are cordials, soda, fruit juices, and energy drinks among others.
Acids also combine with bacteria and food particles in the mouth to form a soft, sticky layer called plaque on the teeth. Plaque buildup can lead to problems such as cavities and gum infections.
Below are five crucial facts about tooth decay.
What causes tooth decay?
Tooth decay is caused by a number of factors. The most notable factors are the presence of bacteria and sugar and starch compounds in the mouth. Eating or drinking foods that contain acid also contributes to the level of acidity in the mouth.
Every time you eat or drink food that has starch or sugar, some of the food particles remain trapped between your teeth. Sugar and starch compounds are also deposited on your teeth. If you do not brush or floss your teeth, the bacteria in your mouth will act on food particles between your teeth as well as the sugars and starches that are present on your teeth. The action of bacteria produces acids which slowly corrode your teeth’s outer surface.
Bacteria, acids and food particles also combine with saliva to form a sticky film called plaque on your teeth. If plaque is not removed through oral hygiene practices like brushing, plaque will build up and harbor more bacteria. The bacteria continue to act on the sugars and starches that are deposited on the teeth surfaces, thus producing more acid that leads to tooth decay.
The acid in the mouth demineralizes the teeth’s enamel, and if not addressed, can cause tooth cavities. Decay starts in the enamel and once the enamel wears away, the decay can spread further into the dentin and pulp of the tooth.
Plaque can also harden to form tartar, leading to various types of gum infections and gum recession.
What are the risk factors for tooth decay?
Everyone is at risk of having decayed teeth, but some people are at a higher risk. The risk factors are outlined below.
Consumption of too much acidic or sugary drinks and foods
Given that sugar and acid are some of the leading causes of tooth decay, consuming too much acidic or sugary drinks and foods significantly increases your risk of having decayed teeth. Any acidic food or drink that you consume, such as a fizzy drink, directly contributes to the level of acidity in your mouth. The more acid your teeth are subjected to, the higher the risk of your enamel being eaten away.
Sugars and starches also contribute to the level of acid in your mouth when they are broken down by bacteria. If you eat or drink foods that contain sugar and starch and fail to brush, some of the compounds will be left in your mouth. Bacteria will then act on the compounds, producing acid that contributes to tooth decay.
Poor dental hygiene
Bad oral hygiene practices like failing to brush teeth twice each day and not flossing regularly promote the activity of bacteria in the mouth, leading to tooth decay. Also, if you do not brush or floss, plaque will build up on your teeth more quickly.
Not getting enough fluoride
Fluoride strengthens teeth and helps prevent their decay. If you do not get enough fluoride, you become more susceptible to tooth decay.
Having a dry mouth
A dry mouth means that you have a low amount of saliva. This implies that your mouth lacks the lubrication and cleaning properties that saliva offers. Hence, you are likely to have more plaque, and your teeth and gums are more vulnerable to infections.
Medical conditions such as bulimia and acid reflux cause acid to move from your stomach into the mouth. This exposes your teeth to acidic conditions and increases the risk of decay.
What are the symptoms of tooth decay?
If you have a decaying tooth or teeth, you are likely to experience any or all of the following symptoms:
Toothache – The pain can be continuous or occasional, such as when you are brushing or chewing.
A bad sensation in your mouth
Brown, black or grey spots on your teeth
Tooth sensitivity – Your teeth are likely to become sensitive in areas where all enamel has been eaten away, thus exposing the tooth’s dentin.
When should you see a dentist?
If you have a habit of visiting a dentist regularly, tooth decay can be diagnosed and treated before it worsens. Early treatment is also much more affordable than treatment of advanced problems. The dentist will also give you advice on how to prevent further tooth decay.
What treatment options are available?
Different forms of treatment can be used when dealing with tooth decay. The treatment method depends on the level of spread of the decay.
For a decay that is only on the tooth’s surface: Your dentist will apply fluoride gel on the affected area.
Cavities: The dentist may recommend dental filling to repair the hole.
Root canal: Where the decay has reached the tooth’s pulp, the dentist will use the root canal procedure to remove the tooth’s nerves and pulp. They will then seal the tooth.
Teeth that are severely damaged: The dentist will extract the damaged tooth and insert a partial denture, bridge or dental implant as a replacement.
Tooth decay can easily be prevented by practicing good dental hygiene. Practices like brushing two times a day and flossing on a regular basis help remove sugars, bacteria and plaque deposits that contribute to tooth decay. It is also important to visit a dentist regularly since regular dental checkups make it easy to detect and treat tooth decay. If you have tooth decay, you dentist will use an appropriate treatment method depending on the extent of the decay.