Female dentist explains what causes cavities to a male patient

What Causes Cavities and How to Prevent Them

When it comes to oral care, one of the first things that someone with improper hygiene might encounter is cavities. That type of tooth decay is among the world’s most common health problems. Learning exactly what causes cavities and all the ways you can prevent them can save you from adding to that statistic.

What Causes Cavities

Cavities, also known as tooth decay, are caused by several factors that happen over a period of time. This isn’t a condition that just happens overnight.

The first step in the process is when plaque forms on your teeth. Plaque is a clear, sticky substance that will coat the teeth. It’s caused by eating sugary or starchy foods and then not cleaning your teeth well afterward.

Bacteria will attack those food particles on your teeth, which leads to the formation of plaque. If it’s not brushed away, it can harden and form tartar, otherwise known as calculus. Tartar forms a sort of hard shield for the bacteria, making it harder for you to get rid of.

If you get to this point, the plaque will start to attack the hard enamel coating that’s meant to protect those pearly whites. The acid found in the plaque will begin to dissolve holes into the enamel, creating the first part of the cavity.

With the enamel removed, bacteria can then move into the next layer of your tooth, called the dentin. It’s a much softer layer, so the acid doesn’t have to work as hard to eat away at this layer. Dentin also has tiny tubes in it that communicate with the tooth’s nerve. That’s where you’ll start to feel some sensitivity.

After making their way through the dentin, bacteria and acid will end up destroying the pulp, which is the soft, inner part of the tooth. The pulp contains nerves and blood vessels. The acid and bacteria will make the pulp irritated and swollen, which compresses the nerves. At this point, you’ll be experiencing pain due to the pressure on the nerve.

Symptoms of Cavities

Let’s dig a little deeper into the symptoms you should look out for to know if you could have a cavity. They can be different depending on which tooth is affected and how bad the cavity has gotten.

Here’s what the Mayo Clinic says to look out for:

  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Tooth pain that happens without any apparent cause
  • Pain when eating or drinking something hot, sweet, or cold
  • Visible holes in your teeth
  • Brown, black, or white staining on the surface of the tooth
  • Pain when you bite down

If the cavity hasn’t gotten too bad yet, you might not notice any symptoms at all. That’s why it’s important to keep your regular appointments with your dentist. They’ll be able to spot early signs of tooth decay so you can address the issue before it escalates.

Male dentist explains tooth x-rays with a female patient and explains how to prevent cavities

Cavity Treatments

When it comes to treatment, it’s going to depend on how bad the cavity is. If you let it get too bad, you might end up needing a tooth extraction. That’s another way catching the problem early can save you a lot of pain in the future.

In the best-case scenario, you’ll catch the problem really early. That will allow your dentist to just apply a fluoride treatment to help restore your enamel and prevent further decay.

For a tooth that has gone too far for that, you’ll have to get a filling. This is where that dreaded drill comes into play. The dentist will use the drill to remove all of the decay. Then, the hole gets filled in with a substance like silver, gold, or a composite resin.

If a filling isn’t quite enough, you’ll need to get a crown. That’s a sort of cap that fits over your tooth to protect it since the enamel has been eaten away. The dentist will still have to remove all of the decayed parts of the tooth before putting on the crown, which sometimes comes in the form of a root canal if the damage is severe enough.

If the tooth is too far gone to save even with a root canal, the dentist will have to extract the tooth entirely.

How to Prevent Cavities

Now that you know what causes cavities, you’re better equipped to learn how to prevent cavities. The biggest measure you can take is having an excellent oral hygiene routine.

You need to brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. It’s even better if you brush after every time you eat. Flossing each time is also a must. It ensures you’re getting all of the food particles off of your teeth and gums.

Your dietary habits can also affect your oral health. Try not to eat or drink too often (except for water). When you eat or drink sugary beverages, you’re altering the pH balance inside of your mouth. That creates acid and introduces bacteria. Be constantly snacking, you’re leaving your teeth open to attack all day.

To quench your thirst, try drinking tap water instead of other beverages or bottled water throughout the day. Tap water usually contains fluoride, which helps fight tooth decay.

When you need a snack, reach for something that’s tooth-healthy instead of something sugary. Things like fresh fruits and vegetables increase your saliva production, which helps to clean off your teeth. Make sure you’re avoiding things that can easily get stuck in the crevices of your teeth or in between them.

What Increases Cavity Risk

Anybody with teeth can get cavities, but there are other factors that could make you more likely to get them than others. According to the Mayo Clinic, those factors include:

  • Inadequate brushing
  • Not getting enough fluoride
  • Younger or old age
  • Dry mouth
  • Heartburn
  • Eating disorders
  • Bedtime infant feedings

Fight Back Against Tooth Decay

If you’re terrified of that drill the dentist uses or you just would rather not end up sitting at home one night in immense pain and contemplating pulling out your own tooth, you need to take your oral health seriously.

Brushing and flossing twice a day combined with regular appointments with your dentist will go a long way. If you haven’t been in a while, set your appointment today so you don’t have to end up going through even more pain somewhere down the line.