Tooth decay is a slow process that occurs due to bacterial activity in your mouth. It causes damage to your teeth resulting in cavities, pus pockets, and in severe cases- tooth loss. Thus, it is necessary to maintain good oral hygiene to prevent tooth decay.
Continuous accumulation of food particles in between your teeth and gums can lead to plaque deposits. Plaque is a sticky layer that covers the surface of your teeth. It comprises food particles, saliva, and bacteria. Over a period of time, plaque may harden and form tartar which shields the bacteria making them difficult to clean.
The bacteria in plaque feed on the food in your mouth, converting the sugars from food into acid, which leads to tooth decay over a long period of time.
What are the Causes of Tooth Decay?
Tooth decay is primarily caused due to poor oral hygiene. Cleaning your teeth regularly with a toothbrush and regular flossing helps keep tooth decay at bay.
Stages and Symptoms of Tooth Decay
Tooth decay occurs in 5 stages. These include:
Stage 1: Initial demineralization
The outer layer of your teeth is the mineral-rich enamel, which is exposed to acids. It begins to lose minerals.
Symptom: Appearance of a prominent white spot in one or more of your teeth. This is the initial sign of tooth decay.
Stage 2: Enamel decay
As tooth decay continues, the enamel continues to erode further.
Symptom: The white spot on your tooth may darken and appear brownish. There may be formation of small cavities, also called dental caries.
Stage 3: Dentin decay
The soft layer underlying your enamel is dentin. It is connected to nerve endings and is more susceptible to acid attack. The tooth decay hastens as it reaches the dentin.
Symptom: You begin to experience sensitivity to hot or cold foods and drinks.
Stage 4: Pulp damage
The innermost layer of your tooth is the pulp. It is richly supplied with blood and nerves. As the nerves in the pulp become damaged, they swell and exert pressure on the surrounding tissues.
Symptom: Intense pain in your teeth
Stage 5: Abscess Formation
As tooth decay penetrates deeper into the pulp, the bacterial activity causes an infection which leads to inflammation in your tooth. This causes formation of a pus-filled pocket at the bottom of your tooth, called an abscess.
Symptom: Tooth abscesses cause severe pain that may radiate to your jaw and cause swelling in your gums, jaw, face, lymph nodes in your neck, and fever. The infection may spread into the bones of your jaw, neck, and head if not treated promptly.
How is Tooth Decay Diagnosed?
Your dentist will perform a thorough dental exam. Your teeth will be examined and dental X-rays may also be performed to determine the extent of damage to your teeth.
Tooth Decay in Children
Tooth decay may occur in children too. They are more prone than adults as the child’s enamel is thinner and more sensitive. The process begins when the food particles in the mouth are broken down by bacteria which release acids that attack the enamel. As it continues, children develop similar symptoms as that in adults.
Tips for prevention of tooth decay in children:
Avoid giving excessive sugary foods or drinks to your children.
Brush their teeth regularly.
What are the Treatment Options for Tooth Decay?
The best treatment for tooth decay is prevention through good oral hygiene. Other treatment options may include:
- Fluoride treatment for initial tooth decay
- Use of crowns: a custom-fitted covering that replaces your tooth's entire natural crown
- Fillings/restorations: Covering the cavity with fillings/restorations made of special bio-compatible material
- Root canal treatment: The diseased tooth pulp is removed and medication may be administered into the pulp followed by covering the cavity with a filling. This is done to repair a damaged tooth instead of removing it.
- Tooth extraction: In the last stage, if you have developed a severe infection and abscess, you may be required to undergo tooth extraction surgery. It involves injection of a numbing medication in the affected gums and extracting or pulling out the tooth carefully followed by application of an ice pack. You may be prescribed medications to prevent pain and swelling post tooth extraction.
Tips to Prevent Tooth Decay
Some good oral practices to prevent tooth decay include:
- Rinse your mouth after meals
- Brush with fluoride toothpaste
- Avoid frequent snacking and sipping
- Avoid sugary foods
- Visit your dentist regularly
- Use antibacterial mouth rinses