Tooth decay is a common problem worldwide; you can develop rotten teeth at any age. Research by the Australian Dental Association shows that one in three adults over age fifteen has untreated cavities, and one in three children aged five to six have already had a cavity in a primary or baby tooth. A hole in a tooth can be a painful experience and, in the worst case, may lead to a severe infection or even tooth loss.
Most people assume tooth decay or dental caries is due to a diet high in sugar. While diet plays an important role, the reason cavities develop and even why some people are more prone to dental caries than others is somewhat more complex. Learning what causes teeth to decay can help you avoid this entirely preventable disease, increasing the chances of enjoying a healthy, cavity-free smile for years to come, or we hope for life.
What are the Causes of Tooth Decay?
Several factors can increase the risk of cavities, which develop over time due to the presence of bacteria in your mouth. Far from being a clean environment, your mouth plays host to over three hundred different strains of bacteria, and millions of bacteria are present at any given moment. Many of these strains are benign and cohabit with you quite happily, but one particular bacterium called Streptococcus mutans is not so friendly, and it lives in dental plaque.
Is Streptococcus Mutans Harmful or Helpful?
Streptococcus mutans is harmful, and it is a bacterium known for causing tooth decay. When you eat something sugary or starchy, some particles will inevitably remain stuck around your teeth and gums, potentially beginning the process of tooth decay.
What Causes Teeth to Decay?
Streptococcus mutans utilise the sugars from these foods as energy, creating acid as a byproduct. The acid attacks your tooth enamel, dissolving and removing some minerals from the enamel in a process called demineralisation. As a result, the tooth enamel begins to weaken. The process occurs every time you eat or drink anything with sugars. Another process called remineralisation occurs as the acidity levels in your mouth decline, usually at least half an hour after eating something sugary.
During remineralisation, some of the minerals removed from your tooth enamel are redeposited, as they remain in your saliva. However, not all the minerals will be replaced back into your enamel. Eventually, your tooth enamel weakens to such an extent that it develops holes or lesions. Once these lesions develop, the bacteria in your mouth can enter the tooth, penetrating the dentine underneath, which is much softer and more easily destroyed, creating a cavity.
Preventing cavities is a balancing act, and your teeth can remain healthy, strong, and free from decay when protective factors outweigh harmful factors. Unfortunately, if the harmful factors outweigh the protective factors, then you can begin to develop cavities.
Which Factors Increase the Risk of Tooth Decay?
- Poor oral hygiene
- Frequent snacking
- Eating too many sugary foods
- Reduced saliva
How to Prevent Dental Caries?
One main factor that can increase your risk of cavities is poor oral hygiene. We strongly urge everyone to brush their teeth at least twice a day and floss once daily to remove dental plaque, a sticky biofilm containing Streptococcus mutans. Thoroughly brushing and flossing your teeth helps to remove most of these harmful bacteria, helping to control their numbers. It is also the reason why we recommend regular hygiene appointments.
Some dental plaque will inevitably remain on your teeth, quickly hardening into tartar or calculus. The bacteria in calculus continue to produce harmful acids, and the presence of calculus makes it easier for more dental plaque to stick to your teeth. During a hygiene appointment, we thoroughly remove all plaque and calculus buildup, protecting your teeth from cavities and helping to prevent gum disease.
Many people prefer to snack frequently to keep their energy levels high rather than having three large meals a day. Frequent snacking, especially on sugary foods increases the time your teeth are exposed to harmful acids. If you like to snack frequently, choose foods that can help protect your teeth, such as calcium-rich foods like cheese and sugar-free yoghurts and crunchy fruits and vegetables that are high in fibre and have high water content to help wash away harmful bacteria.
Lots of people have a sweet tooth, but if you are eating a lot of sugary foods and have problems with tooth decay, it’s worth adjusting your diet. If you want something sweet as a treat, include it as part of your main meal instead of as a snack. Ideally, end a meal with cheese as the calcium helps to protect your tooth enamel and fights harmful bacteria.
Some people have a condition called xerostomia, where they cannot produce enough saliva. Saliva is a protective fluid that contains fluoride and other minerals that strengthens tooth enamel. It also helps rinse away harmful bacteria, restoring a normal pH level more quickly. A dry mouth also allows harmful bacteria to thrive; if you have this condition, we can discuss how to manage it. Often, it’s a side-effect of certain health problems, medications or medical treatments, and it may be useful to use a saliva substitute to keep your mouth fresh, clean and healthy.
What Happens If I Have a Cavity?
Initially, a small cavity in a tooth may not cause any symptoms, but as it gets deeper, you may find the tooth becomes increasingly sensitive, especially when you eat or drink anything hot, cold, or sweet. You could develop toothache or pain when you bite down. If you look at the tooth, it may be possible to see a visible hole, or the tooth may look stained. If your tooth is severely infected from a deep cavity, the tooth gum might look swollen and red.
When to Come and See Us?
If you visit Tandara Dental Centre regularly, we can check your teeth carefully for any signs of small lesions or softness in your tooth enamel that may indicate the beginning of a cavity. Otherwise, if you experience tooth pain, make an appointment to come and see us as soon as possible. Tooth decay treatment will eliminate the streptococci bacteria causing this infection, protect and preserve the tooth and restore it to its former shape, size and strength.
Treating Tooth Decay
If your tooth enamel only has the earliest signs of a lesion, it might be possible to reharden the enamel with an application of professional-strength fluoride. Otherwise, you will need a filling. During this treatment, we first numb your tooth to ensure you feel comfortable before carefully removing all the decayed portion of the tooth, preparing the cavity for a filling. The filling material is placed into the cavity to create a tight seal, preventing more harmful bacteria from penetrating your tooth enamel and causing further decay. When you come and see us for checkups and hygiene appointments, we will check the condition of any fillings because, eventually, they will wear out and need replacing before they begin to leak. Promptly replacing older fillings will help ensure the tooth remains protected.