Did you know that tooth decay is Australia’s most common chronic disease affecting children and adults? Tooth decay is the term used to describe damage to a tooth’s enamel or surface. It occurs when bacteria inside the  mouth produce acids that harm the enamel (the hard glossy substance covering the crown of the tooth).

Tooth decay can lead to serious dental problems if left untreated, such as gum disease and infections. Fortunately, various preventative measures can be taken to avoid tooth decay, and treatment options are also available.

What is tooth decay, and how does it form?

Tooth decay, also known as dental caries or cavities, is the irreversible deterioration of the hard outer layer of the teeth caused by bacterial action. The bacteria which largely contribute to tooth decay are called streptococcus mutans. These specific bacteria live in plaque, a sticky film that accumulates on teeth over time, feeding off sugars and carbohydrates.

Over time, bacteria produce acids that can break down the enamel. This leads to tiny holes or fissures developing. If left untreated, tooth decay can lead to serious dental problems such as gum disease, infections, and tooth loss.

What causes tooth decay, and how can I prevent it?

When it comes to tooth decay, prevention is always the best approach.

The following are common contributors to tooth decay and respective prevention tips:

Cause: Poor oral hygiene is the number one cause of tooth decay as it promotes plaque build-up.

Preventive Action: You can prevent tooth decay by brushing your teeth twice daily with fluoride toothpaste, flossing daily, and visiting your dentist for regular check-ups and cleanings.

Cause: A diet high in sugary, starchy foods and acidic beverages can contribute to tooth decay.

Preventive Action: Healthy eating habits can help prevent tooth decay. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains while avoiding sugary and starchy foods, as well as drinking plenty of water.

Cause: If you have a dry mouth, you are at a higher risk for tooth decay.

Preventive Action: Saliva helps wash away food and neutralise the acids produced by plaque bacteria. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day will help keep your mouth hydrated. Chewing sugar-free gum, sucking on sugar-free candy or using mouthwash specifically formulated to increase moisture in the mouth can also help stimulate saliva flow.

Cause: Smoking also increases the risk of tooth decay because it decreases saliva production and makes it harder for the mouth to fight off infection.

Preventive Action: Quitting smoking is the best way to reduce your risk of tooth decay and other severe dental problems.

What are the symptoms of tooth decay?

The symptoms of tooth decay can vary depending on the stage of the disease. They may include:

  • Swollen red gums
  • Gums that bleed easily
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Pain when biting or chewing
  • Toothache
  • Bad taste in your mouth
  • White or black film on your tooth cavity
  • Tooth loss

If you experience any of these symptoms, consult with your dentist as soon as possible. When the problem is diagnosed, suitable treatment can be carried out.

What are some treatment options for tooth decay?

During the very early stages of tooth decay, your dentist may recommend a fluoride treatment. It can help restore your tooth’s enamel and sometimes reverse the damage.

Dental fillings are generally the primary treatment option when tooth decay has developed. During this treatment, your dentist will remove the decay and seal the cavity with a dental filling material such as composite resin, porcelain, metal, or a combination of different materials.

A dental crown may be necessary if you have extensive tooth decay. Your dentist will remove the decay and then place a dental crown over the tooth. Composite resin, porcelain, ceramic, or metal are common materials for a dental crown.

Root canal treatment may be necessary if you have an infection in the pulp of your tooth. Root canal treatment involves removing the infected tissue, cleaning the inside of the tooth and then sealing it.

In more severe cases where the tooth has completely rotted away, a dental extraction may be necessary. Afterwards, a dental implant or bridge may be recommended to restore the lost tooth.

No matter what stage you are in, you must see a dentist as soon as you notice tooth decay symptoms. Follow your dentist’s instructions and schedule follow-up appointments to ensure the tooth decay does not come back. Early treatment can prevent the problem from becoming more severe.

How often should you visit the dentist for a check-up and cleaning to help prevent tooth decay?

The Australian Dental Association (ADA) recommends you visit your dentist for a check-up and cleaning at least once every six months to remove any plaque or tartar build-up on your teeth. This allows for early diagnosis of any oral health problems.

You may need to visit your dentist more often if you have a history of tooth decay, gum disease, or other dental problems. Your dentist will be able to recommend a treatment plan that is right for you.