Cavities (or caries) are a form of tooth decay. Bacteria in your mouth ferment carbohydrates, breaking down the enamel in your teeth. Bacteria live inside the plaque, which is why your teeth are more susceptible to decay if you have poor dental hygiene.
Cavities have no symptoms in their earliest stages. This is because cavities form beneath the surface of your teeth. As the decay progresses, you will start to have symptoms such as pain and obvious discoloration.
The best way to catch cavities is to make regular trips to the dentist. Your dentist will be able to find decay with radiographs while the cavity is still in its earliest stages. Regular cleanings can also reduce the amount of tartar and plaque on your teeth, decreasing your risk of cavities.
Cavities cannot be reversed, but their progress can sometimes be slowed or stopped with good dental hygiene. If you do not visit your dentist, you may only notice cavities when they have progressed to a more serious stage and present symptoms.
Types of Cavities
There are three main groups of cavities: coronal, root, and recurrent cavities.
Coronal cavities form in the pits of your teeth, or in between teeth—areas affected by chewing. This is the most common type of cavity.
Root cavities can form when your gums have receded and are exposing the sensitive roots, which are not protected by hard enamel. These cavities are more common among older people.
Recurrent cavities occur at the site of a previous filling or crown. A renovated tooth tends to accumulate plaque, making the area more vulnerable to decay.
Signs of Cavities
If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with the dentist right away. Cavities do not fix themselves, and untreated tooth decay becomes worse the longer it goes untreated.
- Staining. Your tooth may have white, brown, or black spots. While sometimes these are just stains, cavities tend to be soft and sticky. Cavities may cause your entire tooth to discolour.
- Depressions in your tooth. You may be able to see holes or pits in your teeth.
- Toothaches. Your tooth may hurt suddenly without cause.
- Tooth sensitivity. You may feel sharp, sudden pain when consuming something hot, cold, sweet or acidic.
- Pain when biting. You might feel pain when biting down on something hard or crunchy.
- Bad taste or breath. When bacteria forms in the cavity in your tooth, you may develop bad breath or have a metallic taste in your mouth.
- Bleeding or swollen gums. Deeper cavities damage the nerve in your tooth and may cause infection. This irritates your gums, resulting in swelling or bleeding while brushing your teeth.
- Sensitivity to pressure. You may feel a dull or sharp pain in your tooth resulting from pressure changes, something you are likely to notice while flying. This is because air pressure changes can affect the nerve of an infected tooth.
Dangers of Untreated Cavities
An untreated cavity can go from being a minor problem to a dental emergency. Tooth decay continues to move deeper into your tooth, from the enamel to the dentin, which is a softer material full of tubules that allow acids and sugars into the nerve-filled pulp.
When tooth decay reaches the pulp, bacteria cause it to expand, pressing on nerves. If tooth pulp becomes infected, it can form an abscess, which is a pocket of pus at the root of the tooth. This infects the tooth and may even spread to your jaw.
Tooth decay can progress beyond what a filling can fix. An untreated cavity may eventually need a root canal (the removal of pulp inside the tooth) or even removal of the tooth. This is why you should see your dentist immediately when you notice symptoms of a cavity—to avoid costly and potentially invasive repairs.
Preventing Against Cavities
Cavities are the second most common health disorder among adults and the first among children. While they are common, there are some steps you can follow to decrease your risks.
Practice good dental hygiene. Brushing twice a day and flossing once can help reduce plaque on your teeth, which is the starting point for cavities.
See your dentist regularly. Your dentist can catch cavities before symptoms appear. Though you can’t do anything to reverse a cavity, you can slow down tooth decay by improving dental hygiene. Your dentist will also be able to remove tartar from your teeth, something you cannot do by yourself at home.
Watch what you eat. Sticky foods or foods that are high in sugar (or carbohydrates) put a lot of wear on your teeth. This includes potato chips, hard candy, honey, sugar, dry cereal, dried fruits, cookies, cake, and soda.
Limit sugary drinks and snacks. If you snack or sip on sweet beverages throughout the day, you constantly expose your teeth to acids that break down the enamel on your teeth. Consider replacing snacks with healthier choices and taking your coffee without sugar. Water and low-fat milk are a great way to stay hydrated without the sugar of juice or sports drinks.