Cavities are small holes in the teeth that form as a result of decay. During the decay process, the outer layers of the teeth, known as enamel and dentin, are worn away, leaving eroded areas called cavities. Cavities are caused by a buildup of bacteria, food particles and saliva which combine to form dental plaque, a film that coats the teeth. Since plaque is acidic, it can attack the tooth causing decay and resulting in cavities.
Causes of Cavities
Regular tooth cleaning prevents plaque buildup, but decay often occurs in the back teeth which are harder to clean. Causes of cavities include:
- Genetic makeup
- Eating many sugary foods or confections
- Poor dental hygiene
Smoking has also been found to increase the risk of developing cavities.
Symptoms of Cavities
Symptoms of cavities vary depending on their severity and location. Many people do not experience any symptoms when decay is just beginning. As decay progresses, however, patients may experience symptoms which include:
- Tooth pain
- Tooth sensitivity
- Visible holes in the teeth
In patients with cavities, tooth pain often occurs while eating or drinking foods or beverages that are very sweet, very hot, or very cold.
Diagnosis of Cavities
In patients who visit the dentist regularly, most cavities are discovered at an early stage during a routine checkup. As the dentist examines a tooth with a cavity, it may have abnormally soft surface. Routine dental X-rays are necessary because they show cavities that are not yet visible to the naked eye.
Treatment of Cavities
Treatment for cavities depends on the severity of the condition, which is why it is important to seek dental attention as early as possible. The earlier a cavity is detected, the more easily it is treated. Treatment options include the following:
- Fluoride treatments
- Drilling out the decayed material and filling the hole
- Sealants, usually applied to the chewing surfaces of back teeth
- Root canal, when the whole tooth is infected
A crown may be necessary when decay has damaged a tooth to the point that it can no longer support a filling.
Prevention of Cavities
Practicing good oral hygiene is extremely important in preventing cavities. Brushing and flossing the teeth at least twice daily is recommended. In some cases, the dentist may also advise the use of a dental pick, a water-flossing device, and an antibacterial, anti-plaque, or fluoridated mouthwash.
Cavities are most often due to the combination of a sugar-laden diet and not enough careful brushing. Restricting sugary snacks and drinks, along with brushing thoroughly at least twice a day, can lower the risk of developing cavities. Other forms of cavity prevention include:
- Limiting high-sugar content food, gum or candy
- Thoroughly brushing and flossing twice daily
- Drinking water instead of sugary drinks
- Avoiding sticky foods that adhere to the teeth
- Avoiding smoking
Dental sealants are highly recommended for the prevention of cavities. The sealant acts as a barrier between teeth and food particles. Sealants can help both adults and children, and may be reapplied every few years. For patients who are more prone to tooth decay, the dentist may recommend more frequent toothbrushing and more frequent use of mouthwash or dental hygiene devices.
- Medline Plus
- National Institutes of Health
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
- U.S. National Library of Medicine