Tooth decay, more commonly called cavities, are permanently damaged areas in tooth enamel where holes form in the teeth. Cavities grow slowly over time when excess acid in the mouth erodes the enamel. That acid can be caused by a number of factors, often in combination with each other, including poor dental hygiene, consuming acidic or sugary foods, and bacteria. Although cavities are among the most common health concerns worldwide, they affect some people more often than others. Below, we’ll explain exactly what causes cavities to develop and what procedures you can expect at the dental office if you have one.

What Causes Cavities?

You probably already know that cavities are caused by plaque buildup in your mouth. Plaque is actually a sticky film of bacteria that adheres to your teeth, and if it stays long enough, the acid it releases can begin to eat away at the hard enamel on your teeth.

Your mouth has multiple natural defenses against plaque, the most effective of which is saliva. Saliva contains enzymes that neutralize plaque acid and help repair minor tooth damage. It also washes away minor food debris that bacteria feed on.

The strongest tool in your dental hygiene toolbox is brushing, and the most important time to deploy this tool is right before bed. Brushing away any food left in and around your teeth at the end of the day ensures that bacteria have less to feed on when your mouth is most vulnerable overnight.

Sometimes brushing and your natural defenses simply aren’t enough to prevent cavities. When this happens, it’s usually due to a few factors:

Decreased saliva: Dry mouth—whether caused by dehydration from alcohol or sugar consumption, conditions like Sjogren’s syndrome, or medications like antihistamines or antidepressants—increases your risk of cavities.

Increased acidity: Acidic drinks like sodas, wine, coffee and sports drinks all lower the pH in your mouth, whether they contain sugar or not. Increased exposure to a high acid environment can weaken your enamel and allow bacteria to penetrate below the surface of your teeth.

Constant snacking: Research estimates that every time you eat, your teeth are exposed to acid for up to 30 minutes. Similar to drinking acidic beverages, constant snacking can raise the acidity in your mouth, no matter what you are eating.

Tooth damage: Bruxism (tooth grinding), enamel issues and cracked teeth all strip off the protective outer layer of your teeth in places, providing a door for bacteria to enter the more vulnerable areas of your teeth.

What are the Signs and Stages of Tooth Decay?

Any fissure in enamel is considered a cavity, but not all cavities are created equal. Tooth decay is a long process, and after bacteria penetrates the enamel, it can infect the dentin (the softer inner layer of teeth connected to nerve endings). If the infection progresses past the dentin to the inner tooth material (pulp) or to the root or bone, it becomes a painful, serious condition.

Stage 1: Plaque buildup on the outside of tooth. No cavity has formed yet, but the tooth is at risk without professional cleaning.

Stage 2: Enamel weakened by acid or bacteria build up or tooth damage allows bacteria to penetrate below the surface.

Stage 3: Bacteria spreads to the dentin, causing pain and compromising the tooth.

Stage 4: (rare): Bacteria reaches the tooth pulp or root, forming an abscess that can lead to serious or life-threatening infections.

Cavity Symptoms:

  • Tooth pain
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold
  • Holes or pits in the teeth
  • Brown or black staining on the tooth
  • Bad breath or a bad taste that doesn’t go away with brushing

How a Dentist Diagnoses Cavities

Quite often, cavities begin forming without any symptoms. That is why dentists recommend regular, yearly checkups to clean and examine your teeth. The earlier you catch a cavity, the better, as the permanent damage to your tooth (or teeth) grows along with the infection.

Dentists use multiple tools during an exam to check your teeth for cavities and other damage. Most of these are small probes that the dentist lightly taps the teeth with. They do this because even if no black spots or discoloration are visible, a tooth with a cavity will feel softer to the touch than one with strong, healthy enamel. If a dentist suspects a cavity, they might call for a dental x-ray, which will also help diagnose any decay before it’s visible to the naked eye.

Contact a Dentist If You Experience:

  • Toothache
  • Difficulty Chewing
  • Swelling in the gums or cheeks
  • Redness in and around your mouth

How Do Dentists Treat Cavities?

After diagnosing a cavity, your dentist can treat it with a number of tools, depending on the cavity’s severity, including:

  • Fluoride: For minor cavities, fluoride treatment administered in the office or as a prescription toothpaste or mouthwash can help restore enamel.
  • Drilling and Fillings: For second stage cavities, dentists drill a hole in the tooth—either with manual tools or a specialized laser—to remove the infection. However, once the infection in the tooth is gone, the hole remains. Most modern dentists use fillings made of composite resin, but some use ceramic, silver amalgam or glass ionomer fillings as well. Gold fillings phased out mostly after 1980, but many people still have them in their mouth.
  • Root Canal: Once tooth decay progresses beyond the dentin to the pulp, a root canal is necessary. Much like with a filling, the endodontist or dentist removes the infected area, this time including the tooth pulp, and fills in the affected hole.
  • Tooth extraction: In extreme cases of cavities or tooth decay, it might become necessary to remove the infected tooth. In this case, your dentist prepares a dental implant to replace the pulled tooth so your appearance and bite are not affected.

What to Expect at Your Dentist

For any procedure beyond fluoride treatment, the dentist will inject a local anesthetic to numb the teeth and gums near the affected tooth. University General Dentists also offers both nitrous oxide or full hospital sedation for patients with anxiety or trauma surrounding dental procedures.

Drillings only take a few minutes, and root canals and tooth extractions are completed in under an hour. Any residual numbness in your mouth will fade in a few hours.

Family Dentistry at University General Dentists in Knoxville, TN

Cavities are incredibly common, even for people with excellent oral hygiene. That is why it’s important to have regular dental checkups to diagnose and treat cavities early, before they progress into more sever tooth decay.

If you are experiencing tooth pain or have gone more than a year without a dental checkup, University General Dentists is here to help. We provide family dentistry services to keep your loved ones’ smiles healthy and strong. We believe in caring, attentive, and respectful dental care, and we provide everything from routine checkups to extensive dental repairs with the latest state-of-the-art technology. Schedule an appointment at our UT Medical Center office at 865-305-9440 or at our West Knoxville office at 865-500-5700.