Tooth decay, also called dental caries or cavities, is one of the world’s most common ailments. According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s the most prevalent chronic disease in both children and adults, resulting in countless hours lost from school and work and costing untold sums of money. Ironically, this malady is also largely preventable. If you would like to avoid the problems of tooth decay—including the need for fillings or other dental work, the cost and time required for treatment, and the potential for tooth loss—there are some concrete steps you can take to reduce your risk. But to understand how cavities get started, let’s look more closely at the decay process.
Three ingredients are needed for tooth decay to occur:
Cavities get started when plaque bacteria are allowed to remain on tooth surfaces. These bacteria metabolize sugars from your diet and release acids as byproducts. The acids, in turn, begin eating away at your tooth enamel—the hard outer covering of your teeth. Soon, a small hole (cavity) begins to form in the outer layers of the tooth. If left untreated, the decay can continue eating away at the tooth structure, and the bacteria can reach deeper inside the tooth. This can eventually make it necessary for you to have root canal treatment—or even to have the tooth extracted (removed). But you don't have to let it go that far!
Is it possible to stop tooth decay in its tracks, and even reverse some of the damage it does? Yes—but it takes a little effort and some common-sense precautions. Here’s how to get started.
If you’re at increased risk for cavities because of one or more factors noted above, there are some professional treatments that can help. Fluoride treatments given in the dental office are a safe and effective way to restore the tooth’s enamel. They can help stop cavities from forming, and even reverse the earliest stages of decay. Dental sealants—thin plastic coatings applied to the chewing surfaces of teeth—can prevent decay bacteria from taking hold in hard-to-clean crevices. In some situations, fluoride mouthrinses and acid-neutralizing agents may be prescribed as well.
Tooth decay may be a common ailment—but you don’t have to simply accept it. Ask your dentist what you can do to stop decay from dimming your smile.