A healthy mouth usually fights tooth decay successfully. The mouth contains protective bacteria and is bathed in saliva, which neutralizes acids, remineralizes teeth, and washes away food particles. However, if this balance is disturbed, harmful bacteria can cause tooth decay.
Tooth decay refers to an area on a tooth that has been destroyed by acids created by bacteria in dental plaque. Plaque is a sticky material made of mucus and saliva, food particles, and bacteria. Even after a thorough cleaning, plaque begins to form within hours. Because plaque forms on your teeth every day, brushing on a regular basis is very important and necessary to help avoid or reduce decay.
The main cause of tooth decay is plaque. Bacteria in plaque feed mainly on simple sugars and starches in food. Bacteria create an acid that gradually destroys the enamel of a tooth, forming a cavity. Enamel is the outer, hard, glossy layer of the chewing surfaces of a tooth.
After the enamel is destroyed, the acid attacks the soft inner layer of the tooth (the dentin). This causes pain and the cavity gets bigger. Bacteria can next invade the exposed pulp at the center of the tooth and destroy the nerve. At this point root canal therapy (to remove the damaged nerves in the tooth) or pulling the tooth is necessary.
Early dental decay often causes no discomfort. After decay has destroyed much of the hard, outer portion of the tooth, you may get a toothache when you eat hot, cold, or sweet foods.
If the cavity is not treated, decay destroys more of the tooth and the pain worsens. In addition to pain, you may have bad breath, a bad taste in your mouth, and possibly swelling and bleeding.
When checking for signs of decay, your dentist and dental hygienist look for:
In addition, your dentist or hygienist will regularly take X-rays to check for decay.
To treat tooth decay, your dentist removes the decayed portion of the tooth and restores the tooth with a filling or crown.
Fillings and crowns last 4 to 20 years, depending on the material used. As filling materials age and break down, they need to be replaced.
Without treatment the dentin and then the nerve of the tooth may be destroyed.
If you are having pain from a decaying tooth, call for an appointment to see your dentist for treatment. Until you can see your dentist, take these steps to help relieve the pain:
Call your dentist after he or she has treated your tooth if:
To prevent tooth decay, follow these guidelines: