What Are Dental Cavities?

Most of us have visited the dentist for a routine check-up only to be told that we have cavities. The question is, what are dental cavities exactly and more importantly, what causes them?

The technical or scientific name for tooth cavities is ‘dental caries.’ It is a form of tooth decay that occurs when decay-causing bacteria naturally found  in the mouth start to generate acids which attack the surface of the tooth. As they do so, the acids start to dissolve the hard minerals of the tooth enamel. As the surface erodes, it develops pits or cavities. While at first, a tooth cavity may be difficult to spot, it will over time, become larger.

So why is it important to spot dental caries (tooth decay) early?

If left undisturbed, by a toothbrush or floss for example, for more than 12 hours, the bacteria in your mouth can clump together in a film commonly known as plaque. These bacteria, when they come into contact with the sugars and carbohydrates you eat, produce acid as a waste product. This acid dissolves away the outer layer of your teeth, called enamel. If enough of the minerals in your enamel are removed by the acid, a hole (or ‘cavity’) can form. If the cavity is allowed to grow large enough, over time, it is possible that it can reach the center of the tooth that houses the nerves, blood vessels, and pulp. In this unfortunate situation, the bacteria in your mouth can now enter directly into the living portion of the tooth and cause it to become infected — sometimes leading to an abscess, necessitating root canal treatment.

While that is, of course, a worse case scenario, it does highlight what can happen when cavities aren’t dealt with.

Sticky, sweet foods like gummy candy and dried fruit are big trouble for dental cavities!

What about the causes of dental cavities?

Dental cavities are heavily influenced by a number of factors including:

    • Lifestyle and habits – What we eat, how frequently we eat, how well we take care of our teeth etc.
    • Hereditary circumstances – How susceptible our teeth are to tooth decay
    • Early exposure to harmful oral bacteria – When adults kiss their babies, they share their cavity-causing bacteria with their little ones
    • Medical conditions including hormonal changes during pregnancy and a lack of saliva (known as dry mouth) which can also contribute to tooth cavity problems
    • And even, the inadequate presence of fluoride in our water and/or toothpaste can leave some people susceptible to tooth decay.

While children are more at risk of any number of dental caries causes, they can and do affect adults. The types of dental caries include:

  • Coronal cavities – There are holes or pits found on the tooth enamel, chewing surfaces, or between teeth and are the most common.
  • Root-based cavities – These occur mainly in adults and happens in those with receding gums. As we age, gums can shrink leaving the sensitive part of the tooth exposed. This can leave them prone to attack.
  • Recurrent decay – When plaque forms around existing crowns and fillings, it can lead to further decay.  

Now we’ve taken a detailed look into what dental cavities are and the many causes, it’s probably a good time to discuss cavity treatments. However, before we do, there’s one factor that we haven’t covered and it’s this…

If a tooth cavity is difficult to spot early on, are there any tell-tale signs that may give us an indication that we have a cavity issue?

If you see a spot on your tooth that is whiter than the surrounding tooth, it is likely that this what is called a ‘white spot lesion.’ White spot lesions are areas where the acid from the bacteria in your mouth has removed minerals from your enamel and weakened that area. This is what happens before a cavity (the actual hole in your tooth) forms.

Unless you’re a trained professional, early signs of cavities are difficult (read as impossible) to spot. It’s only when the cavity becomes larger or has reached the inner layer of the tooth that you may feel some sensitivity when eating or drinking hot or cold foods. This is why it’s important to visit the dentist regularly because they have the skills, technology, and equipment to spot any problems early on. This way any tooth problems can be dealt with quickly and at minimal cost/hassle to you.

Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about the types of cavity treatment available.

Once the demineralization process has weakened your tooth enough that the white spot lesion has turned into a cavity, the standard treatment is a filling. Any decay is cleaned out and the hole filled. In the past, this would have been an amalgam (silver-colored filling). Now, however, most dentists use composite white fillings which match the color of your teeth for better aesthetics.

If tooth cavities are larger and a filling isn’t ideal, then your dentist may suggest inlays or onlays. These are similar to a filling only they’re custom made and either fit in or over the cusp of the tooth, thus protecting it from any further problems. The other possibility is a crown which is made to fit over the entire tooth. Crowns can be made of different materials such as gold, porcelain, or porcelain fused to metal.

Root canal therapy

Okay, so the name is enough to strike terror into even the most ardent of dentist goers, but in reality, it’s a relatively straightforward dental treatment for those with tooth root infections. The diseased tooth pulp is removed and the chamber is back-filled with a rubber-like material which then effectively seals the tooth. In most cases, the tooth will be capped with a dental crown for added protection. Carried out over several visits, a root canal can either be performed by a general dentist or an endodontist (a root canal specialist).  

Finally, what about cavity prevention? How do you stop a tooth cavity from forming in the first place?

The best way to prevent cavities from occurring is to reduce the amount of plaque in the mouth. Of course, a sound level of daily brushing and flossing is key, but in addition, fluoride mouth rinses after meals or snacks can help to keep the levels of decay-causing bacteria down.    

Another way that acids and plaque can be reduced is by eating less starchy or sugary foods. In addition, you may want to chew gum such as Xylitol as it can help to reduce bacterial growth. Also, drink more tap water rather than bottled water. Did you know that tap water contains more fluoride which helps to harden teeth, aids tooth remineralization, and is also an antibacterial solution?

Finally, teeth can also be protected from cavities using dental sealants. These are clear harmless coatings which are painted onto the surface of the tooth to help prevent tooth decay or dental cavities in the future.

So there you have it! Hopefully, this has answers the question ‘what are dental cavities‘ in addition to looking at the causes, symptoms, types of dental cavity treatments, and how to prevent them.  

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