Dental Cavities & How to Prevent Them
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early childhood caries, or cavities, are amid the most common health problems in the United States, increasing at a level that can only be described as epidemic. In school-aged children, dental pain has become one of the top health problems seen daily by school nurses. Untreated tooth decay caused by cavities can produce speech problems, difficulty with chewing, and impaired nutrition, which can impact overall health. Fortunately, dental cavities can be prevented and even reversed through proper oral hygiene and regular professional dental care.
What are Dental Cavities?
Cavities are indelible damaged spots in the hard surface of the teeth that progress into small or large holes that can only be repaired by a dentist. Cavities are also called caries and are essentially decay of the teeth resulting from a possible amalgamation of factors, involving constant snacking, drinking sugary drinks, bacteria in the mouth, and insufficient teeth cleaning. Cavities are particularly seen in young children and teenagers, but even infants can develop cavities if proper oral hygiene is not practiced.
If left untreated by a dentist, cavities grow larger and deeper into the multiple layers of the teeth. Tooth decay spreads, and can lead to infection, extreme dental pain, and loss of the affected teeth.
What Causes Dental Cavities and How Do They Progress?
Tooth decay preempts and produces cavities, which must be repaired by a dentist. Cavities do not just ‘pop up.’ Tooth decay is a process that transpires and progresses over a period of time. The process of tooth decay and the forming of cavities can be broken down into a few different steps:
Plaque Build Up—Inside of the mouth, many natural types of bacteria exist. Some bacteria are healthy and some are detrimental if allowed to grow in the mouth. Certain types of detrimental bacteria prosper when food and drinks that contain particular kinds of sugars are not properly cleaned off of the surface of the teeth. When this happens, the bacteria begin feeding rapidly on these sugars and generate acids. This enables the bacteria to produce bacterial plaque, which is a sticky film that coats the teeth and can be felt when a person runs his or her tongue across the surface of the teeth. This plaque may feel especially prominent on the backs of teeth near the gum line. If this plaque is not cleaned off while soft, it grows hard, becomes tough to remove, and houses bacteria.
Plaque Damages Teeth—Built up plaque on the surface of the teeth contains acid that demineralizes the hard protective outer tooth surface called enamel. Deterioration of the enamel leads to holes in the enamel, which is the beginning stage of cavities. As spots of enamel are eroded away, acid and bacteria moves to a deeper layer of the teeth called Dentin, which is more susceptible to acid and more pliant than enamel.
Decay and Destruction—As tooth decay progresses, acid and bacteria continue to move deeper and deeper through the inner pulp matter of the teeth, which houses blood vessels and nerves. Due to the bacteria, the pulp becomes aggravated and swells, which likely results in severe dental pain, sensitivity to hot and cold foods or drinks and when biting, and other possible symptoms. When decay is allowed to progress to this stage, the body’s white blood cells may fight the infection by attacking the foreign bacteria. This can lead to an abscess of the tooth, which is an infected pocket of pus and a serious and painful dental issue.
Signs and Symptoms of Dental Cavities
Depending on the level of decay and the location of cavities, different signs and symptoms may arise. As a cavity is first forming, symptoms may not occur at all, but as a cavity becomes bigger, signs and symptoms such as these may materialize:
- White, brown, or black spots anywhere on the surface of a tooth.
- Tooth sensitivity.
- Tooth pain, especially when biting down.
- Slight to sever pain when eating or drinking something cold, hot, or sweet.
- Small or large holes in the teeth visible to the naked eye.
- If experiencing any of these symptoms, a person should make an appointment with the dentist immediately.
How To Prevent Dental Cavities
It may be difficult to know if a cavity is forming, so it is extremely important for kids to visit the dentist as directed and regularly for dental check ups and teeth cleanings. Kids are recommended to visit the dentist every six months for a regular check up and cleaning. The key to preventing cavities however, is good oral and dental hygiene at home as well. Below are some helpful hints for maintaining proper oral hygiene:
Brush teeth with fluoride toothpaste after eating and drinking—Kids should brush their teeth twice a day, once in the morning once at night before bed. It is even better, however, to brush teeth after every meal, using toothpaste that contains fluoride. If it is not possible to brush teeth after eating, rinsing the mouth out with water is recommended. For young children, ask the dentist how much fluoride containing toothpaste to use on the toothbrush for each cleaning. Young children should not be exposed to too much fluoride.
Visit the dentist regularly and consider dental sealants—Professional oral exams and teeth cleanings help prevent and pinpoint problems early. A child should visit the dentist according to the schedule the dentist recommends for the best care and prevention. Also the CDC recommends dental sealants for all school-aged children. Sealants are protective coatings applied by the dentist to protect the teeth from acid and plaque.
- Drink tap water—Typically tap water includes added fluoride, which aids in protecting against tooth decay tremendously.
- Fluoride treatments—Consider professional intermittent fluoride treatments, recommended by the dentist, especially if a child is not receiving enough fluoridated tap water.
- Avoid continual sipping and snacking—When a child snacks constantly throughout the day or continually sips drinks other than water, the teeth are under constant assault by acids formed by mouth bacteria. Avoid or limit foods and drinks that are extremely sugary and/or get stuck between the crannies and grooves of the teeth.
- Use mouth rinses if recommended—If a dentist feels a child is at high risk for tooth decay, he or she may endorse the use of a fluoridated mouth rinse. Also, for some children who are particularly susceptible, the dentist may recommend certain antibacterial mouth rinses to diminish unhealthy bacteria in the mouth.