“Look ma, no cavities!” was the tagline used for decades that allowed a famous national brand of toothpaste to beat out its competition. To this day, a clean bill of health after routine preventive-care dental appointments includes a finding of no cavities.
But what, exactly are cavities and how are they formed?
Cavities or “caries” – better known as tooth decay – is the most common form of oral disease known to man. Tooth decay is damage to tooth enamel, which is the hard, outer layer of your teeth.
How does it begin? Well, bacteria naturally present in our mouths consume sugar from foods we eat and produce acid as a result. It’s that acid that can damage teeth and cause cavities. Proper dental hygiene can wash away the acid and help prevent tooth decay.
When food particles, bacteria, and acid are not regularly removed from the teeth, a sticky buildup of sugar and bacteria can form on the teeth. This dental plaque can harden into calcified plaque (tartar), becoming very difficult to remove without a dental hygienist’s help. Tartar, in turn, can lead to receding gums and gum disease.
So now that you know how they’re formed, let’s discuss cavity types.
Wait – There Are Different Types of Cavities?
Yes, indeed; there are three main categories of cavities, defined by where they occur:
- Smooth-Surface Cavities – cavities that form on the flat surfaces of the tooth, including between the teeth. This type of tooth decay is easiest to manage with proper dental hygiene, and thus tends to develop more slowly than the other types.
- Root Cavities – decay that begins on the root surface covering after gums have receded, exposing the area. Thus, root cavities are more common in people with receding gums, such as older adults, smokers, and those who engage in aggressive tooth brushing.
- Pit and Fissure Cavities – these cavities form in the grooves on the chewing surface of a tooth.
Left untreated, a cavity can lead to an infection (abscess) or destruction of the delicate nerves at the tooth’s center (pulp) – which can result in the need for antibiotics, root canal, or loss of the tooth.
Increasing your risk of tooth decay are any medical condition or disease or medications that cause dry mouth (a lack of adequate saliva in the mouth means you are less able to wash away acids between brushings).
Thanks to good oral hygiene habits, fluoride-treated dental products, and reducing or even eliminating sugary snacks and drinks, it not uncommon for many patients to go through their entire lives without experiencing a cavity.
But remember, tooth decay requires constant vigilance. For example, don’t let what is advertised as healthy foods, juices or sodas fool you: sometimes items labeled as “100% pure” refer to the fact that there are no artificial sweeteners – but there is nothing bacteria love more than 100% natural sugar to wreak havoc in your mouth.
If you have reason to believe you may have a cavity, or you simply want to maintain a healthy smile, you should plan to visit your dentist as soon as possible. If you live in the Minneapolis – St. Paul area, Dr. Steven Hagerman is a trusted local option for your entire family’s dental care needs. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Hagerman for you or your family, call (651) 646-2392 or use our online appointment request form.