Some people think only children get tooth decay, but all of us are at risk our whole lives. The good news is that tooth decay can be prevented. By following a healthy oral care routine and making smart food choices, you can lower your risk for tooth decay.
Tooth decay is a disease that damages and breaks down teeth. Your teeth have a hard outer layer (enamel), a middle layer (dentin) and a center (pulp).
Your teeth are covered by a sticky film of bacteria called plaque. After a meal or snack, the bacteria turn the sugars in foods and drinks into acid. The acid breaks down the enamel of your tooth. If the decay gets through the enamel, a hole, or a cavity, can form. Once the cavity forms in the enamel, it can continue to spread deeper into the layers of your tooth.
If tooth decay is not treated, you may feel pain, the infection can spread to other parts of your mouth, and you may even lose teeth. People with tooth pain often have trouble eating and sleeping and may miss days of work or school.
You may not notice any signs or symptoms at all, so it’s important to see your dentist regularly. They will examine your teeth and take X-rays if needed.
Not exactly, but the bacteria that cause tooth decay can be passed from one mouth to another by kissing, sharing a cup or spoon, or anything else that carries a drop of saliva. Do not share toothbrushes with anyone else, either.
Tooth decay can damage any tooth. It often occurs between teeth and in the grooves of back teeth, where bits of food collect. Toothbrush bristles do not get into these grooves. Back teeth are also harder to keep clean because they are not as easy to reach. Another place decay can form is at the tooth root. Cavities here may go below the gum line.
Even a toothbrush bristle is too big to reach inside a groove in the tooth (magnified).
Tooth decay can form under fillings.
X-ray of tooth with decay under a filling.
Your risk may increase if you:
Treatment depends on the size and location of the decay.
Saliva helps prevent tooth decay, too. It reduces acid damage to teeth by washing away sticky, sugary foods. Saliva also makes acids weaker. The minerals in saliva can help repair teeth. Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candy after eating can increase saliva flow and help rinse away sugars.