Cavities are one of the most common dental problems faced by people of all ages. It is estimated that 90% of people will experience at least one cavity in their lifetime. Cavities can be painful, lead to tooth loss, and cause a range of other oral health issues. In this article, we will explore what cavities are, the types and causes of cavities, and how to prevent them.
What is a cavity?
A cavity is a hole in the tooth caused by tooth decay. Tooth decay occurs when bacteria in the mouth, specifically a bacteria known as Streptococcus mutans, produce acid that erodes the tooth enamel. Over time, the enamel becomes weakened, and a hole or cavity forms. Cavities can occur on any surface of the tooth, but they are most commonly found on the chewing surface or in between teeth.
Types of cavities
There are several types of cavities, which are categorized based on the location of the cavity on the tooth. The three main types of cavities are:
- Pit and fissure cavities: These cavities occur on the chewing surface of the molars and premolars. The pits and fissures on the surface of these teeth can be difficult to clean with a toothbrush, which can make them more susceptible to decay.
- Smooth surface cavities: These cavities occur on the smooth surfaces of the teeth, such as the front teeth or inbetween teeth. When they happen inbetween teeth, they are sometimes known as "flossing cavitites". These cavities are often caused by plaque buildup and can be prevented with proper flossing.
- Root cavities: These cavities occur on the surface of the tooth roots, which are exposed as gum tissue recedes. Root cavities are more common in older adults and is more difficult to treat.
How a cavity progresses
The progression of a cavity typically begins with the formation of a small, white spot on the tooth surface. This initial stage, known as demineralization, can often be reversed through good oral hygiene and the use of fluoride or nano-hydroxyapatite.
If left untreated, the demineralization can progress to a larger, more noticeable brown or black spot on the tooth surface, indicating that the enamel has been irreversibly damaged. At this point, the decay has reached the dentin layer of the tooth, which is softer and more susceptible to decay.
As the decay continues to progress, it can eventually reach the pulp of the tooth, which contains nerves and blood vessels. This can result in a toothache, sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures, and other symptoms.
If the cavity is not treated at this stage, the decay can continue to spread and eventually lead to a dental abscess or even tooth loss.
Cavity symptoms can vary depending on the severity and location of the cavity. In the early stages, a cavity may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, as the cavity progresses, you may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Toothache: A toothache is a common symptom of a cavity, especially when you chew or bite down on something.
- Sensitivity: Sensitivity to hot or cold foods and beverages, or sweet foods, can be a sign of a cavity.
- Visible Holes or Discoloration: You may notice visible holes or discoloration on the affected tooth, especially if the cavity is on the front of the tooth.
- Bad Breath: Cavities can produce a foul odor in your mouth, which can cause bad breath.
- Pain When Eating or Drinking: Pain or discomfort when eating or drinking is another common symptom of a cavity.
Here are the top 7 causes someone might be at risk of getting cavities
- Poor Oral Hygiene. When you don't brush and floss regularly, plaque builds up on the teeth. Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria (remember Streptococcus mutans?) that produces acid, which can damage the tooth enamel.
- Consuming sugary or acidic foods and drinks. Foods and drinks that are high in sugar or acid can increase the amount of acid in the mouth, leading to tooth decay. This pretty much gives Streptococcus mutans and other bacteria a headstart on causing cavitites.
- Dry mouth. A lack of saliva in the mouth can make it easier for bacteria to stick to the teeth, increasing the risk of cavities.
- Using the wrong oral care products. Using the wrong oral care products may not effectively clean your teeth or provide the necessary protection against tooth decay. Using a toothpaste that doesn't contain fluoride or nano-hydroxyapatite won't help with building your enamel and remineralization. Similarly, using a mouthwash that has alcohol or other harsh chemicals can dry out the mouth and leave your teeth at risk.
- Unbalanced oral microbiome. When the oral microbiome is disrupted, harmful bacteria (again, Streptococcus mutans) can grow out of control, leading to an increased risk of cavities. An imbalance could be due to medication use, certain oral care products, poor oral hygiene, or a diet high in sugar.
- Genetics. Some people are more prone to cavities due to genetic factors that affect the strength of their tooth enamel.
- Lack of Professional Dental Care. Not visiting the dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings can lead to undetected tooth decay and cavities that can worsen over time.
How to prevent cavities
The good news is that cavities are preventable. Here are some steps you can take to keep your teeth healthy and cavity-free:
- Brush your teeth twice a day: Brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste or nano-hydroxyapatite toothpaste can help remove plaque and strengthen the tooth enamel.
- Floss daily: Flossing once a day can help remove plaque and food particles from between teeth, where a toothbrush can't reach.
- Limit sugary and acidic foods and drinks: Try to avoid foods and drinks that are high in sugar or acid, such as candy, soda, and citrus fruits.
- Drink plenty of water: Drinking water throughout the day can help wash away food particles and bacteria from the mouth.
- Visit your dentist regularly: Regular dental checkups can help detect and treat cavities before they become more serious.
- Know your tooth decay score: Using an at-home saliva test such as peri will mesaure how much Streptococcus mutans (and other bacteria) are currently present in your mouth.
- Talk to your dentist about dental sealants: Dental sealants are a thin protective material that covers the pits and fissures on your teeth to prevent a cavity from forming underneath.
How to stop cavities
If you already have a cavity, there are several treatment options available. The most common treatment is a filling, which involves removing the decayed part of the tooth and filling the cavity with a material such as composite resin. In more severe cases, a root canal or tooth extraction may be necessary.
Tooth decay is a serious oral health issue that can lead to cavities, tooth loss, and other problems. By following good oral hygiene practices and making healthy lifestyle choices, you can help prevent cavities and keep your teeth healthy for life. Remember to brush and floss regularly, limit sugary and acidic foods and drinks, drink plenty of water, and visit your dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings.
About Dr. Kantor
Alexandra Kantor is a prominent dentist and entrepreneur, known for her contributions to the dental industry. With over 10 years experience as a practicing dentist, she has gained a deep understanding of her patient's oral health and overall well-being. In 2022, Dr. Kantor founded peri, an at-home saliva test that specializes in analyzing key bacteria within the mouth. Dr. Kantor holds a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the Indiana School of Dentistry and is dedicated to promoting oral health through advanced technology.