Tooth decay is an infectious disease that gradually damages your teeth. It's extremely common, both in adults and in children. It can develop as soon as a child gets their first tooth.
Tooth decay initially eats away at the outer layer of the tooth, called the enamel. The infection eventually progresses into the tooth and creates a cavity. If left untreated, it can reach the nerves and blood vessels at the centre of the tooth. Bacteria can then penetrate the tooth completely and cause an even more serious infection known as a tooth abscess.
Tooth decay has the following symptoms:
- Tooth sensitivity to heat and cold
- Pain when eating
- Tooth pain that is occasionally severe and that worsens over time
- Pus inside the teeth
- Swelling in the gums or cheeks
- Tooth loss
Causes and triggers
Tooth decay occurs when the bacteria normally present in your mouth come into contact with the sugars in the food you eat. These bacteria are found in plaque, a white film that forms on the teeth and is removed with brushing. If plaque stays on your teeth for too long, the bacteria can turn the sugars in food into an acidic substance that attacks your teeth.
How tooth decay is treated depends on the severity of the infection. If it isn't serious, the dentist may simply put in a filling; a more severe infection may require a tooth extraction.
Maintaining good oral hygiene is the most effective way to prevent tooth decay. That's why it's essential to make brushing and flossing part of your daily routine. Avoiding foods that are high in sugar can be helpful as well. Your dentist may also suggest taking preventive steps such as using fluoride products and dental sealant.
When should I see a health care professional?
Consult your health care provider if you're experiencing pain in your teeth or mouth.
It's also recommended to have a dental checkup at least once a year. Depending on your oral health, the dentist may suggest a more thorough exam.