What Causes Tooth Decay?

When people do not clean their teeth sufficiently and/or consume too many starches and sugars, a sticky film called dental plaque forms due to bacteria feeding off these starches and sugars. Over time, this plaque hardens above or under your gum line and turn into calculus (aka tartar). This calculus creates a protective barrier for the bacteria and makes it more difficult to remove plaque.

Plaque contains acids that attack the outer enamel and cause tiny openings to develop. Once enough enamel is worn away, the acid and bacteria begin attacking the dentin, which consists of microscopic channels that communicate with the nerve of the tooth. Because this layer is less resistant to enamel, tooth sensitivity will begin to occur when this layer gets attacked.

As tooth decay progresses, the acid and bacteria will move to the pulp of your tooth, which contains blood vessels and nerves. The bacteria will irritate the pulp and cause it too swell, and because there is no room for this expansion, it presses on your nerve, which will cause you pain.

Risk Factors

Cavities are most common in children, teenagers and the elderly, but everyone is at some risk of developing cavities, even infants. If left untreated, the cavities will continue to get bigger and will begin causing damage to deeper layers of your teeth. When tooth decay becomes severe enough, issues like infection, severe toothache and even tooth loss can occur.

Tooth decay is caused by a combination of factors, such as drinking too many sugary drinks, snacking frequently, a diet that is heavy in foods that cling to your teeth, like chips, cookies, soda, ice cream, or milk, not practicing good oral hygiene habits, and the bacteria in your mouth. Additional factors that will increase your risk of developing tooth decay include:

  • Inadequate or improper brushing
  • Insufficient amount of fluoride
  • Being younger or older
  • Dental devices or fillings that have become worn
  • Dry mouth
  • Eating disorders
  • Heartburn

One of the best things you can do to avoid tooth decay is to practice good oral hygiene habits. Brush and floss your teeth daily and schedule regular dental cleanings at least every six months. In addition to getting a professional cleaning, these regular exams also allow your dentist to look for early indications of tooth decay.

In the early stage of tooth decay, you may not exhibit any symptoms depending on where the tooth decay is occurring and its severity. As the decay gets larger, common symptoms you may experience include:

  • Pain when biting down
  • Staining on the surface of your teeth
  • Visible pits or holes in your teeth
  • Discomfort when drinking or eating something cold, hot or sweet
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Toothache for no identifiable reason

Another important risk factor in development of tooth decay is the location of the tooth. Because your back teeth are harder to clean and because they have multiple roots, pits, crannies, and grooves, they are more likely to collect food and develop tooth decay.

If you are exhibiting any signs of tooth decay or have not had an oral examination for some time, it is a good idea to schedule an appointment as soon as possible. The sooner tooth decay is treated, the better.

Symptoms of Tooth Decay