Cavities are caused by a breakdown of the tooth enamel by acids produced by bacteria located in plaque that collects on teeth, especially along the gumline and in the crevices on the chewing surfaces of the teeth. Eating and drinking foods high in carbohydrates cause this bacteria to produce the acids that can cause the outer coating of the tooth (enamel) or root surface to break down (demineralize).
Although cavities are largely preventable, they are one of the most common chronic diseases throughout the lifespan. About one-fourth of young children, half of adolescents and more than 90% of adults experienced tooth decay. Untreated tooth decay affected 10% of young children to 26% of adults aged 20–64. Untreated tooth decay can lead to abscess (a severe infection) under the gums which can spread to other parts of the body and have serious, and in rare cases fatal, results.
Community water fluoridation and school-based dental sealants programs are both cost-saving, proven strategies to prevent tooth decay
Cavities and tooth decay are so common that you may not take them seriously. And you may think that it doesn’t matter if children get cavities in their baby teeth. However, cavities and tooth decay can have serious and lasting complications, even for children who don’t have their permanent teeth yet.
Complications of cavities may include:
- Tooth abscess
- Swelling or pus around a tooth
- Damage or broken teeth
- Chewing problems
- Positioning shifts of teeth after tooth loss
When cavities and decay become severe, you may have:
- Pain that interferes with daily living
- Weight loss or nutrition problems from painful or difficult eating or chewing
- Tooth loss, which may affect your appearance, as well as your confidence and self-esteem
- In rare cases, a tooth abscess — a pocket of pus that’s caused by bacterial infection — which can lead to more serious or even life-threatening infections
Good oral and dental hygiene can help you avoid cavities and tooth decay. Here are some tips to help prevent cavities. Ask your dentist which tips are best for you.
- Brush with fluoride toothpaste after eating or drinking. Brush your teeth at least twice a day and ideally after every meal, using fluoride-containing toothpaste. To clean between your teeth, floss or use an interdental cleaner.
- Rinse your mouth. If your dentist feels you have a high risk of developing cavities, he or she may recommend that you use a mouth rinse with fluoride.
- Visit your dentist regularly. Get professional teeth cleanings and regular oral exams, which can help prevent problems or spot them early. Your dentist can recommend a schedule that’s best for you.
- Consider dental sealants. A sealant is a protective plastic coating applied to the chewing surface of back teeth. It seals off grooves and crannies that tend to collect food, protecting tooth enamel from plaque and acid. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends sealants for all school-age children. Sealants may last for several years before they need to be replaced, but they need to be checked regularly.
- Drink some tap water. Most public water supplies have added fluoride, which can help reduce tooth decay significantly. If you drink only bottled water that doesn’t contain fluoride, you’ll miss out on fluoride benefits.
- Avoid frequent snacking and sipping. Whenever you eat or drink beverages other than water, you help your mouth bacteria create acids that can destroy tooth enamel. If you snack or drink throughout the day, your teeth are under constant attack.
- Eat tooth-healthy foods. Some foods and beverages are better for your teeth than others. Avoid foods that get stuck in grooves and pits of your teeth for long periods, or brush soon after eating them. However, foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables increase saliva flow, and unsweetened coffee, tea and sugar-free gum help wash away food particles.
- Consider fluoride treatments. Your dentist may recommend periodic fluoride treatments, especially if you aren’t getting enough fluoride through fluoridated drinking water and other sources. He or she may also recommend custom trays that fit over your teeth for application of prescription fluoride if your risk of tooth decay is very high.
- Ask about antibacterial treatments. If you’re especially vulnerable to tooth decay — for example, because of a medical condition — your dentist may recommend special antibacterial mouth rinses or other treatments to help cut down on harmful bacteria in your mouth.
- Combined treatments. Chewing xylitol-based gum along with prescription fluoride and an antibacterial rinse can help reduce the risk of cavities