How Cavities Happen and What to Do
Anyone can get cavities. If you have teeth, it is important to know how cavities happen. Today, we are going to talk about how cavities form and how to know if you may have a cavity, as well as what your dentist can do for you to fix the problem.
Once the very first tooth erupts into your mouth, a routine of good dental care should start. If you don’t get into good habits early, you may experience dental caries, commonly known as cavities. Let’s talk about how cavities are formed.
There are 3 different things necessary for a cavity to happen. Plaque, carbohydrates and time.
- You must have the bacteria in your mouth, also known as plaque,
- And you must have some sort of carbohydrate, a starch or sugar.
- Then, those first 2 items must have enough time for the reaction to happen.
Plaque is a sticky, living colony of bacteria that grows on your teeth. When you eat carbohydrates, the plaque grows and create a film over your teeth. This plaque damages your teeth and gums, it picks up unattractive stains from foods and causes bad breath. When plaque builds up on your teeth and is not brushed off well enough at home, it picks up minerals from your saliva and turns hard. This hard deposit is tartar and can only be removed by your dentist or hygienist. Proper brushing, flossing and professional dental cleanings decreases the amount of plaque and tartar on your teeth.
This film of plaque on your teeth produces acid when it comes in contact with a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are present in most foods. They can be healthy foods like grains and fruits, as well as less healthy snacks and desserts. Your plaque makes acid when you have any carbohydrate whether it’s a healthy type or not so much. Parents will often ask me if diluting juices will make them less damaging? Unfortunately, even a small amount of carbohydrates will cause your plaque to produce acid and do damage. Foods that are sticky and catch in your teeth for longer periods of time have even more cavity producing potential.
Now, here is where time enters the picture. The number of times a carbohydrate comes in contact with your plaque and teeth is very important. Every time you put a food in your mouth, you’re activating the plaque on your teeth to form acid. That acid sits on your teeth for a period of 10 to 15 minutes in a concentration strong enough to cause decay. If you take a sip or snack every 15 minutes, you can have strong acid on your teeth for many hours.
- For adults, this can be a cup of sweetened coffee, tea or soda that you sip on throughout the morning or afternoon. Or a small container of snacks you munch on through the day.
- For children, this is often sippy cups or fruits, cereal or crackers frequently available during the day. Bottles offered at bedtime can allow milk to sit on the teeth during the night and cause a severe form decay called Baby Bottle Decay.
If you are going to have a snack, have it and be done with it. Stretching a snack out over a long period of time increases the amount of damage it may do to your teeth. For your dental health, less snacking is better.
Most times it is hard to know if you have a cavity. Decay starts small and, in the beginning, you may not have any symptoms at all. As the cavity grows, you may have mild or intense pain with eating and drinking foods that are hot, cold or sweet. Just biting down on a tooth with a cavity can cause discomfort. Once a cavity grows even larger, you may see dark spots or holes on your teeth. Teeth with a lot of decay can fracture easily. Without treatment or if cavities get too large, the nerve can become infected leading to pain and swelling and you could eventually lose the tooth.
There are 2 different ways to think about preventing cavities, what you do at home every day and then what your dentist and dental hygienist do for you throughout the year.
Your part involves…
- Brushing your teeth in the morning and evening with a fluoride tooth paste and flossing daily minimizes the amount of plaque you have on your teeth. The fluoride in your toothpaste and in tap water powerfully strengthens the enamel. It is important not to use a fluoride toothpaste with children that are too young to effectively spit after brushing. Fluoride free training toothpaste are available for young children. There are also higher concentration fluoride toothpastes for adults who are prone to decay, have acid reflux, orthodontics, recession or lots of dental work. These high fluoride toothpastes help keep teeth healthy in more challenging situations. Ask us about this option!
- Diet is a critical factor in preventing decay. If you are frequently activating your plaque to produce acid by snacking or sipping, you will likely struggle with decay. Try not to snack between meals. If you do have a snack, rinse your mouth with water after to decrease the risk of causing cavities.
- Acid reflux and some medications can increase your risk of decay. Discuss these situations with us.
Professional Dental help!
- Your professional cleaning with your dental hygienist is so valuable in preventing decay. The tartar that builds up on your teeth is a result of spots that you regularly miss when brushing at home. The plaque in these areas collect minerals from your saliva and turn hard. Tartar cannot be removed with home brushing and flossing. More plaque builds up around the rough tartar and is even harder to remove. Having a professional cleaning regularly helps prevent the plaque buildup that leads to decay.
- The fluoride varnish that we apply to your teeth after a profession cleaning strengthens your teeth and helps prevent or reverse cavities. The fluoride mineral is also antibacterial and helps decrease plaque growth. Varnish is a new way of applying fluoride to your teeth. The fluoride continues to strengthen your teeth for up to 4 hours. I recommend fluoride treatments every 6 months for both children and adults.
- Once per year preventive x-rays are taken to give us a view of the area inside and in between your teeth and gums. The modern, digital x-rays we use in our office are very low radiation. X-rays allow me to see cavities, gum disease, infections and other problems that are not visible from the surface.
- Your dentist will also examine your teeth twice per year to check for decay and gum disease as well as other diseases that can affect you mouth and overall health. When cavities are caught early, they are easier to fix and much less costly. Dental fillings and crowns must be replaced after a number of years because they wear out. Therefore, the fewer cavities you have now, the less dental work you will have to have over your lifetime. Catching problems while they are small will save lots of time, money and stress in your life. A dentist’s examination is vital to keeping your mouth and body healthy.
Cavities can be repaired with very natural looking restorations. Whether your tooth is fixed with a filling or crown, often people can’t tell it is not a natural tooth. In my office we do crowns and veneers in 1 day. Fixing cavities early increases the chances of saving your teeth for a lifetime. As cavities get larger, they damage more and more tooth structure and lead to more advanced dental work. Teeth are sometimes lost if cavities get too large.
If you think you have a cavity, don’t wait. Call our office to make an appointment and get it checked out.
We are dedicated to making your experience in our office as comfortable as possible. I have lots of options to help you keep your mouth healthy and beautiful!
Maria Van Huffel, DDS