Tooth decay happens when bacteria destroy the tooth’s enamel and dentin. This can result in pain and sensitivity – and in severe cases infection and even tooth loss.
Tooth decay is one of the most widespread chronic diseases in the UK, and frustratingly it is mostly preventable. Worse still, it affects all ages and tooth extractions among toddlers are worryingly on the rise.
What is tooth decay?
A thin layer of bacteria known as plaque is constantly forming on your teeth. Although this sounds unpleasant, it’s perfectly normal and if you remove it by brushing and flossing regularly, it won’t cause you any problems. However, if you don’t brush it away it will grow and thrive, eventually forming tartar (picture below), which unfortunately you can’t brush away.
The bacteria found in plaque and tartar feed off sugars in your diet, creating harmful acids in the process. It’s these acids that erode the enamel of your teeth, resulting in tooth decay. Acidic foods and drinks will also have the same effect. Other (less common) causes of tooth decay include genetics, age, a dry mouth, tooth grinding and even the shape of your teeth – small crevices provide the ideal breeding ground for plaque.
Tooth decay symptoms
Tooth decay doesn’t always cause pain, so even if you think your teeth are shipshape, it’s important to keep up a good oral hygiene routine. Symptoms that may be a sign of tooth decay include:
- Toothache – whether it’s the occasional ‘jolt’ or constant pain.
- Discolouration – you might notice dark spots appearing on your teeth.
- Sensitivity – your teeth may become more sensitive to hot or cold foods.
- Bad breath – tooth decay is a common cause of bad breath (also known as halitosis).
- Holes – you may even be able to spot small holes or indents on your teeth.
During your dental check-ups, your dentist will be keeping a close eye on your teeth and looking out for the early signs of tooth decay, for example a build-up of plaque.
If you have any problems in between these appointments, you should make an appointment to see your dentist as soon as you can. Don’t wait for your next appointment.
Treating tooth decay
If you catch tooth decay early, you might be spared a filling. Instead, your dentist can help you to improve your oral hygiene routine, and talk to you about your sugar intake. They may also apply a fluoride treatment to strengthen your teeth against further decay.
In most cases though, tooth decay will need to be treated with a simple filling. During the procedure, your dentist will remove any decay and repair the damage to your tooth using dental amalgam or tooth-coloured composite. The latter looks extremely natural and will blend in with your tooth.
If the decay is more advanced and has created a substantial hole, a filling might not be sufficient and your dentist may need to fit a crown over your damaged tooth. If the decay has spread to the pulp of your tooth, resulting in an infection, it might be necessary to remove the pulp through root canal treatment.
In very severe cases, it might not be possible to repair your tooth and you may need it removed. If this does happen, your dentist will be able to fill the gap using a dental implant, bridge or denture. You don’t need to worry about being left toothless.
How to prevent tooth decay
There are two simple ways to dramatically reduce your risk of developing tooth decay:
1. Brush your teeth twice a day
Brushing your teeth regularly will manually remove plaque before it has a chance to become a problem. It’s important to floss once a day too, to make sure you reach the plaque in between your teeth. If plaque does get the chance to harden and turn in to tartar, all is not lost – but you will need to see your dentist to have it removed.
2. Reduce the sugar in your diet
As we’ve already learnt, the bacteria in plaque feed on sugar and produce the destructive acids that cause tooth decay. Therefore, reducing your intake of the sweet stuff can also help to cut your risk of tooth decay.
Where your teeth and sugar intake is concerned, frequency is just as important as quantity. Every time you enjoy something sugary, it takes your mouth around 30 minutes to neutralise the resulting acidity. So, if you’re constantly snacking, this will create the perfect environment for tooth decay.
Similarly, cutting back on acidic foods and drinks will also help you to cut your risk of erosion and tooth decay.
Some other things you can do to lessen your risk of tooth decay include:
- Using a fluoride toothpaste.
- Not rinsing after brushing.
- Chewing sugar-free gum after meals.
- Staying hydrated.
- Seeing your dentist for regular check-ups.
If you have any concerns about tooth decay, contact us to arrange your dental health check.