Dental cavities (also called caries) are places on our teeth where bacteria have accumulated and begun the process of creating decay. Dental cavities are the most common problem dental health professionals treat.
Cavities begin as small holes on a tooth's surface, but can decay all the way down to the tooth's root if left untreated. Rough tooth surfaces can be breeding grounds for bacteria and plaque.
Dental decay in its earliest stage is usually easy to treat.
However, if left untreated the decay can create a hole large enough to cause intense pain when you eat sweets, drink hot or cold liquids or bite down hard on the decayed tooth. Eventually, cavities can destroy the tooth.
The usual symptom of advanced decay is a sharp pain when eating or drinking. In some cases, the decayed area of a tooth becomes infected. Infections can cause pain so intense it is difficult to work or even sleep.
Regular dental checkups and good dental hygiene are your best bet to prevent or reduce cavities. Regular checkups (twice a year for most people) can catch problems early when treatment is easier, less expensive and can usually be completed with minimum discomfort.
Fluoride is a chemical that hardens the surface of teeth and is an important part of preventing cavities. Many municipal water supplies contain fluoride (either occurring naturally or added).
Fluoride is especially effective in treating children and adolescents, but it can help people of any age. Your dentist will know the proper level of fluoride needed to protect your teeth.
If you do not have access to fluoride in your drinking water or if the levels fall below the minimum, your dentist will offer fluoride treatments in the office to raise your level of protection. Your dentist may also recommend toothpaste and mouthwash with fluoride.
As with most health issues, the prevention of cavities is preferable to treatment. To prevent or reduce the number and severity of cavities, follow the basic dental health steps:
- See your dental professional regularly for exams and cleanings
- Brush at least twice per day and floss at least once per day
- Avoid sugary food and snacks, especially food that lodges between teeth
- Skip sugary soft drinks and many so-called energy drinks
- In most cases, a diet that is good for your overall health is also good for your teeth
- Follow the recommendations of your dental professional regarding frequency of exams, brushing, flossing and diet
If you have a cavity, your dentist will schedule you for an appointment to repair the tooth. For simple cavities, the repair will usually take less than an hour.
Your dentist will use a numbing medication in the gums around the decayed tooth to reduce the discomfort. Unlike medications of years past, these modern drugs are very effective and the numbing sensation does not last long after the procedure.
After the area around the tooth is numbed, your dentist will remove the decayed material from your tooth. The resulting hole is filled with a compound that protects the area and prevents further decay.
If the decay has done significant damage to the tooth, your dentist will recommend a course of treatment necessary to repair the tooth. These more extensive procedures may involve longer repair sessions or special procedures.
Your dentist's primary goal is to save the tooth and restore it to health. If the damage is too severe, your dentist will recommend a solution if possible. If the tooth must be removed, there are alternatives your dentist can recommend to allow you to chew, bite down and otherwise function without your original tooth.
A tooth that is visible when you smile or open your mouth warrants special attention so its loss does not create issues with your appearance. Missing teeth not only cause problems with chewing and biting down, but also can harm self-confidence.
Working in partnership with your dental professional can help prevent or reduce the severity of dental cavities and other dental health problems.