Tooth decay is caused by plaque. Plaque is a film of bacteria that forms on your teeth and gums after eating foods that produce acids. These foods include foods high in simple sugars like lollies and biscuits, as well as starchy foods like bread and cereal.
Tooth decay leads to cavities and occurs when plaque remains on your teeth for an extended period of time, allowing the bacteria to ‘eat away’ at the surfaces of your teeth. Ironically, the areas surrounding restored portions of teeth (where fillings have been placed) are particularly vulnerable to decay and are bacterial breeding grounds.
Plaque can lead to gum irritation, soreness and redness. Sometimes, your gums may start to bleed as a result of plaque. This gradual degeneration can cause gums to pull away from the teeth – this is receding gums.
Long term, plaque can lead to serious problems. Sometimes the bacteria can form pockets of disease around teeth, eventually destroying the bone beneath the tooth.
Periodontal disease is a condition in which the gums and bone that support the teeth become infected and start to break down. Many dentists believe that periodontal disease (also known as ‘periodontitis’) is influenced by the body’s response to the infection caused by bacteria in plaque
Eating a balanced diet and limiting the number of snacks between meals can help prevent the long term effects of gum disease and tooth decay. Good foods include fruit, raw vegetable, yoghurt and cheese.
Your saliva protects your teeth by helping to neutralise the damage caused by plaque. Chewing sugarless gum is one way to stimulate saliva production and help prevent plaque from forming.
Brushing, flossing and mouth rinses are the best known methods for eliminating or reducing plaque and tooth decay. Fluoride works in a similar way to saliva to strengthen teeth against plaque formation. If you think you’re not getting enough fluoride from toothpaste and tap water, concentrated gels, rinses and supplements are available. Sealants also provide a barrier to foreign matter including harmful bacteria.
While everyone is susceptible to cavities, people with a lot of fillings have a higher chance of developing tooth decay. Children and senior citizens are the two groups at highest risk for cavities. Heredity may play a major role in how susceptible you are to the formation of a cavity. For example, tooth structure, size, and shape of the tooth may be passed down through many generations. This includes deep pits and grooves which are ideal plaque traps.
Many cavities originate in the hard-to-clean areas between teeth and in the fissures and pits – the ‘nooks and crannies’, so to speak, located in the chewing surfaces of the teeth.
Common symptoms of a possible cavity may include:
- A painful toothache.
- Higher sensitivity in your teeth to hot or cold temperatures.
- The presence of tooth discolorations, white or brown spots.
- Sensitivity to sweet foods.
Often, people develop cavities without any pain or other symptoms. That is why it is so important to schedule regular, routine visits with your dentist. If left untreated, cavities can lead to more serious problems such as infection of the core of your tooth (pulp) or root canal, permanent deterioration, and even loss of the tooth itself.