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If you’re like most Americans, there’s a good chance that you have had, or will have, a cavity in your lifetime. In a survey published by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, it found that 91% of adults ages 20 to 64 had dental caries in their permanent teeth.

In fact, cavities are “the most prevalent chronic disease in both children and adults,” according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.That’s a staggering reality, especially since cavities are preventable with proper oral care.

Before we get into how to properly care for your teeth, let’s talk about what dental caries are.

What are dental caries?

Dental caries is the medical term for what most of us know as cavities or tooth decay. It’s the same way we refer to our abdomen as our belly. Even though the terms dental caries, cavities, and tooth decay are used interchangeably, there is some difference the latter two terms.

Are cavities and tooth decay the same thing?

Not exactly. Untreated tooth decay can become a cavity. Tooth decay is a process that occurs when teeth are exposed to sugar or starches for an extended period of time, or too frequently. If you’re curious how starches are involved in tooth decay, it’s because our bodies breakdown starches into sugars during digestion.

There are lots of types of bacteria in our mouth, but there are two primary bacteria responsible for tooth decay and cavities — Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sobrinus.Both of these types of bacteria thrive on the sugar in our mouth and use it to fuel their ability to produce acid. These acid-producing bacteria then cling to the clear, sticky plaque on our teeth and make themselves at home.

If these acid-producing bacteria are not properly and regularly removed, they will weaken the enamel, which is the outermost protective covering of your teeth. When the enamel is weakened you may start to develop white spots on your teeth, signaling the loss of minerals and the early stages of tooth decay. Fortunately, tooth decay can be stopped or reversed with fluoride if caught and treated at this stage.

How does fluoride work?

Fluoride is a natural mineral that is commonly added to many anti-cavity toothpastes and mouthwashes. It can also be purchased as a supplement like other vitamins and minerals.

Fluoride works in several ways to protect and strengthen your teeth:

  • Prevents further mineral loss

  • Remineralizes enamel

  • Weakens the ability of bacteria to produce acid

How do cavities form?

Left untreated, tooth decay can progress into a cavity.At this stage, the acid-producing bacteria have made their way through the enamel and into the dentin, creating a small hole or cavity in the tooth. Dentin is underneath your enamel and contains several tubules and canals. Once dentin is exposed, heat and cold travel through the tubules and canals, stimulating nerves and causing sensitivity. This is why many people who have cavities complain of tooth sensitivity. Other common symptoms of a cavity are a toothache and pain when you chew.

Once a cavity has formed, it is permanent. In order to repair the tooth and prevent further destruction, you’ll need to visit a dentist to have the cavity filled.

How to prevent cavities

Now that you know how cavities can form, let’s talk about how to prevent cavities.

  • Cut back on sugary and starchy treats and beverages

  • Brush your teeth morning and night with fluoride toothpaste

  • Floss daily between every tooth

  • Visit your dentist twice a year to have your teeth professionally cleaned and examined

Also, keep in mind that cavities are contagious — they’re bacteria after all — so be careful who you eat and drink after.

Filling a cavity

If you have a cavity or suspect that you do, make an appointment with your dentist. There are a variety of dental filling materials available, including amalgam, composite, gold, porcelain and resin or glass ionomer. The type of dental filling that is best for you will depend on a number of factors, including your age, price point, aesthetic needs, the extent of tooth decay and even where the cavity is located in your mouth.

FAIR Health, a nonprofit that researches medical and healthcare costs, reports the average nationwide cost for a resin composite (white) filling on a front tooth is $155.

However, if you have a dental savings plan, you’ll get discounts from 10% to 60% off the cost of the procedure. Another advantage of a dental savings plan is that there is no waiting period. You can get that pesky and painful cavity filled right away.

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