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Dental caries, more commonly known as cavities, is one of the most common dental diseases in children and adults. This largely preventable condition can even affect young children, including babies. More than half of all children and adolescents have a cavity in their primary (baby) or permanent teeth. At least one dental cavity is present in 9 out of 10 American adults. 1

Continue reading to learn more about dental caries, the dangers they pose to oral health, and some easy steps you can take to prevent them.

What is dental caries?

Dental caries is tooth decay. It is damage to the enamel of the tooth caused by bacteria and acids in the mouth. The enamel is the hard mineralized (calcified) tissue that covers and protects the crown of each tooth. When decay-causing bacteria attack the enamel, it can lead to the formation of a tiny hole or cavity in the enamel. If left untreated, tooth decay can lead to pain, infection, and ultimately, tooth loss.

What causes tooth decay?

There are dozens of different types of bacteria in the mouth. Many of these occur naturally and are not harmful – some are even helpful. However, some bacteria are harmful and can cause tooth decay. 2 These “bad bacteria” can be present throughout the mouth, including the teeth, gums, parts of the cheeks and throat, and in the ridges of the tongue. The harmful bacteria mix with remnants of food in the mouth and form a sticky film called plaque. When plaque makes contact with sugary foods and drinks, the bacteria increase in number and release acids that erode the enamel of the teeth. 3 Over time, if left untreated, plaque can harden into tartar. Tartar is a discolored, hard, calcified deposit that coats the teeth and gums.

Who is at risk of tooth decay?

People of any age, gender, and ethnicity can develop dental caries. As noted, the main risk factors are a lack of good dental care and the consumption of large amounts of sugary or starchy foods and drinks. In addition to this, some people are at increased risk of dental cavities, including: 4

  • People who do not practice good oral hygiene. (Brushing with a fluoride toothpaste twice a day and regular flossing can help prevent tooth decay).
  • People who do not eat nutritious, well balanced meals and indulge in a lot of snacking between meals. (Snacking exposes the enamel to sugary/starchy foods and drinks throughout the day).
  • People who do not visit a dentist regularly for oral examinations and professional cleanings.
  • People who don’t produce enough saliva, either as a side effect of medicines or due to certain diseases. (Saliva and fluoride help to replace the minerals and repair the tooth enamel).
  • People who don’t get enough fluoride (studies have shown that water fluoridation can bring down the incidence of tooth decay in children by up to 40%).
  • Bottle-fed babies and toddlers, especially babies who are fed at bedtime, exposing their teeth to sugars for an extended period of time.
  • Older adults who are more likely to have wear and tear of the teeth with receding gums. The receding gums expose the root surfaces of the teeth and increase the risk of decay.

What are the signs and symptoms of tooth decay? Is dental caries painful?

As noted above, if you eat a lot of sugary/starchy foods and don’t take care of your teeth, the harmful bacteria in the mouth can attack the tooth enamel and cause it to lose minerals, ultimately leading to tooth decay. The first sign of tooth damage and loss of minerals is usually the appearance of a white spot on the surface of the tooth. This is an early sign of tooth damage. The decay can be reversed at this stage with good dental care and limiting intake of sugary/starchy foods and drinks. However, if the decay continues, the enamel loses more minerals and a cavity (tiny hole) forms. This is a permanent damage that needs to be treated by a dentist.

In the early stages, tooth decay does not usually cause any symptoms. However, as the decay worsens, it can cause tooth pain, sensitivity to hot and cold, and brown or white stains on the surface of the tooth. Once a cavity (hole) forms in the enamel, it allows the bacteria to enter the pulp (inside) of the tooth. This can lead to the formation of a tooth abscess (pocket of pus inside the tooth). Symptoms of a tooth abscess can include pain, fever, and swelling in the face.

How is dental caries diagnosed and treated?

Dentists diagnose tooth decay and dental cavities by asking about your symptoms and examining your mouth. Sometimes, the dentist may probe the teeth with dental instruments. A dental X-ray may be ordered to see what’s going on inside the tooth.

The treatment for tooth decay depends on the severity of the problem.

  • In the early stages, a fluoride treatment and more aggressive hygiene measures may be recommended to help with enamel repair and prevent further damage.
  • In the early to mid-stages, a dentist may opt to remove the decayed tooth tissue and fill the cavity with a filling material.
  • In late-stage tooth decay, if the bacterial infection has spread to the pulp of the tooth, a root canal treatment may be advised. This involves removing the infected pulp, cleaning the inside of the tooth, and filling the cavity with a temporary filling. You then have to return to the dentist’s office to get the temporary filling replaced with a permanent one or get an artificial cover on the tooth (crown).
  • When the tooth decay is severe, the only option may be tooth extraction (pulling the tooth). In such cases, the dentist may offer an implant or bridge to replace the missing tooth. Getting an implant or bridge is important because an empty space can cause the adjoining teeth to move, causing a change in your bite.

How to prevent dental cavities?

There are simple steps you can take to prevent or at least reduce the risk of developing dental cavities.

  • Make sure you brush with a fluoride toothpaste and use a fluoride mouthwash.
  • Drink fluoridated water. Tap water in the United States is fluoridated. Bottled water does not usually contain fluoride.
  • Brush your teeth twice a day and regularly floss to ensure no remnants of food remain in the mouth.
  • Eat a well-balanced nutritious diet. Limit eating to mealtimes. Rinse your mouth after eating. Avoid snacking on high-sugar, starchy foods throughout the day.
  • Consider quitting smoking. Tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco, can weaken the body’s ability to fight tooth and gum infections. Smokers are twice as likely to develop gum disease compared to non-smokers.
  • Talk to your dentist about using supplemental fluoride or dental sealants to protect the teeth, especially the back teeth, from decay.
  • Go for regular dental checkups and professional cleanings. Visiting the dentist every six months is a good rule of thumb. However, notably, 100 million Americans do not go to a dentist even once a year.

Finding a dentist for dental caries treatment

Do you have white spots or discoloration on your teeth? Are you suffering from toothache? Do you wince every time you eat something hot or cold? These could all be signs of dental caries or tooth decay. Tooth decay is a common problem that can lead to serious complications if left untreated. Yet, oftentimes, your busy schedule does not give you the opportunity to get in to the dentist’s office for an exam and professional cleaning.

Express Dentist makes it easy to find regular hours, after hours, and weekend dentists in your area, so your dental appointment can fit your busy schedule. We have partnered with a nationwide network of leading dental care providers. All you need to do is make one quick phone call to our toll-free hotline 1-844-593-0591 and connect with top-rated dentists in your community, any time of the day or night, all 7 days of the week.

Each of our partner dentists is vetted to ensure you receive the best emergency dental care and regular dental care. The Express Dentist hotline gives you instant access to same-day evaluation and treatment for dental caries from accredited practitioners in your area at affordable prices.

Don’t delay treatment for dental cavities. Call the Express Dentist hotline 1-844-593-0591 today. Calls are completely free and the hotline is open 24/7 for routine as well as emergency dental treatments.

About the author

Dr Greg Grillo
Dr. Greg Grillo

Dr. Greg Grillo DDS studied at the University of Washington where he received a bachelors degree with Honors and later attended dental school on the same campus. Following school Dr. Greg served in the United States Navy as a dental officer. During this time he received advanced training in specialty areas of dentistry while also treating families of members of the military.

As well as sharing valuable information on dentistry and oral health, Dr. Greg remains a practicing dentist to this day. He works with families in the Okanogan Valley where he lives with his wife and three children.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dental Caries (Tooth Decay). Available online. Accessed on May 23, 2021.
  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus. Tooth Decay. Available online. Accessed on May 23, 2021.
  3. Colgate. Three Types of Bacteria in the Mouth and What They Do. Available online. Accessed on May 23, 2021.
  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus. Tooth Decay. Available online. Accessed on May 23, 2021.

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