The majority of adults age 20 and older have had at least one cavity in their permanent teeth. Many people have an idea of what a cavity is, but not much of a clue about how a cavity is actually formed. The treatment for a cavity can be as simple as a small filling, with unattended cavities requiring root canals or crowns to salvage damaged teeth.
What is a Cavity?
To understand what a cavity is, it is important to understand how tooth enamel is structured. Tooth enamel is comprised of a latticework of minerals. Tooth decay occurs when the loss of minerals occurs faster than the rate of rebuilding, a process called demineralization.
A common misconception is that sugar itself erodes tooth enamel; however the sugars simply act as a food for the bacteria. Two types of bacteria are most present in causing tooth decay, Streptococcus Mutans (S. Mutans) and Lactobacilli. These bacteria feed off of sugars that bind to the surface of the teeth. The waste produced by bacteria is lactic acid, which when allowed to settle onto teeth, erodes enamel.
Bacteria feed on various types of sugar found in the foods we consume, including sucrose (table sugar), glucose, fructose, lactose and cooked starches. Reducing consumption of sugary foods can be one method of controlling the growth of this bacteria, and production of acid.
Can you see or feel a cavity?
If you’ve ever had a cavity, particularly a deep one, you may notice increased sensitivity in the affected tooth, or even pain.
The average cavity is not always visible at first glance. Dentists have several methods for identifying cavities that are forming, starting with x-rays of the tops, bottoms and sides of each tooth.
Can tooth enamel be rebuilt?
In almost every case, cavities must be attended to by a dentist who will gently clean and remove decayed parts of the tooth, and refill the hole with a filling. Dental fillings can be composed of porcelain, amalgam, resin, plastic, silver or gold.
Deeper and more severe cavities that are left unattended may require more than a simple filling. Root canals are the prescribed treatment for decay that has reached the pulp at the center of the tooth. Even more severe cases of decay may require a crown to strengthen and protect the tooth from further decay.
Tooth enamel may be rebuilt naturally through a process called remineralization, in which tooth enamel absorbs missing minerals (usually through foods). Remineralization is a very delicate process, and several conditions must be met within the mouth in order for the process to occur. Special remineralizing toothpastes may assist in the process, along with a diet that is rich in the necessary vitamins.
How can cavities be prevented?
Bacteria will always be present in the mouth; however harmful bacteria and their effects can be managed through a good dental care routine. Brush and floss teeth twice daily, and rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash. It is important to brush teeth for at least two minutes every time, and brush all surfaces of teeth. Tongue scraping is another way to control the growth of bacteria in the mouth.
Furthermore, visiting the dentist for biannual visits and cleanings helps, not only keep teeth clean, but screen for cavities and other issues before they intensify.