Shot of a young man with tooth pain while sitting in a dentist's chair.

Inside your mouth are millions of bacteria. Many of them are healthy and good for your overall oral wellness. Yet others build up into a sticky film that coats your teeth and is called plaque. Plaque is the destructive force that creates cavities.

The Making of a Cavity

When we eat and drink the bacteria in our mouths create acids that seep under plaque and eat away at the protective layer of our teeth. The acid destroys minerals from a tooth’s enamel and decay begins. When the enamel is broken down the decay can penetrate the dentin (the core substance of a tooth) and start destroying the sensitive nerve fibers inside.

Signs of a Cavity

Abnormal white spots on a tooth

Tooth sensitivity to hot or cold

Dull throbbing in the affected area

Tooth pain

Other Destructive Effects of a Cavity

Complications from uncontrolled decay can destroy a tooth completely. When the decay spreads to the root of a tooth an infection may occur becoming what is called an abscess. An abscess can spread its infection throughout the body and cause serious (sometimes life threatening) health conditions in other areas of the body. In severe cases an infection that seeps into the blood stream can manifest in the brain or pulmonary (heart) system. Plaque that forms near the gum line can also cause gum disease.

Treating a Cavity                                                                 

Depending on the stage of the cavity there are various treatments to either reverse the effects or stop it completely.

  • Early stages of a cavity are typically painless and may need fluoride or other simple, non-invasive treatments to help the tooth remineralize and heal itself. Teeth can also be sealed to help prevent more cavities if a person is somehow more prone to getting them.
  • If there are breaks in the enamel a dentist will have to repair the damage with a filling. A drill or laser may be used, the decay is removed and the tooth is filled.
  • If the nerve or root pulp is infected and the outside of the tooth can be saved, the dentist will perform root canal treatment. The pulp will be removed and replaced with an inert material. In most cases a crown will be needed to cap the tooth. A complete extraction (removal) of the tooth may be needed in situations where too much of the tooth is destroyed and cannot be salvaged.

Preventing Cavities

Cavity prevention is relatively easy and does not require a large time commitment. It needs to be done both at home by the individual and with professional cleaning in the dentist’s office.

  • Brush twice a day for the recommended two minutes.
  • Floss twice a day. It can be done right before or after brushing.
  • Chew sugarless gum with xylitol. Xylitol does not create the harmful acid that sugar does and has shown cavity fighting properties. Sugarless gum also acts like a floss, getting food out of the spaces in between teeth.
  • Rinse your mouth with water after every meal. This can be done nearly anywhere and anytime to help stimulate saliva flow and swish away many stubborn food particles.
  • Make regular dental appointments every six months. A professional cleaning by a hygienist keeps plaque at bay. X-rays and an examination by a dentist can catch cavities early.

Source: Colgate