Tooth decay is damage to a tooth’s surface or enamel. It happens when bacteria in your mouth make acids that attack the enamel. Tooth decay can lead to cavities (dental caries), which are holes in your teeth. If tooth decay is not treated, it can cause pain, infection, and even tooth loss.
When decay-causing bacteria come into contact with sugars and starches from foods and drinks, they form an acid. This acid can attack the tooth’s enamel causing it to lose minerals.
This can happen if you eat or drink often, especially foods and drinks containing sugar and starches. The repeated cycles of these “acid attacks” will cause the enamel to continue to lose minerals. Over time, the enamel is weakened and then destroyed, forming a cavity.
People of all ages can get tooth decay once they have teeth—from childhood through their senior years.
Because many older adults experience receding gums, which allows decay-causing bacteria in the mouth to come into contact with the tooth’s root, they can get decay on the exposed root surfaces of their teeth.
In early tooth decay, there are not usually any symptoms. As tooth decay advances, it can cause toothache (tooth pain) or tooth sensitivity to sweets, hot, or cold. If the tooth becomes infected, an abscess, or pocket of pus, can form that can cause pain, facial swelling, and fever.
Ways to prevent/slow the process of caries:
Brush teeth and gums with a soft-bristle brush 2 to 3 times a day for 2 to 3 minutes. Be sure to brush the area where the teeth meet the gums and to rinse often.
Rinse the toothbrush in hot water every 15 to 30 seconds to soften the bristles, if needed.
Use a foam brush only if a soft-bristle brush cannot be used. Brush 2 to 3 times a day and use an antibacterial rinse. Rinse often
Let the toothbrush air-dry between brushings.
Use fluoride toothpaste with a mild taste. Flavoring may irritate the mouth, especially mint flavoring.
If toothpaste irritates your mouth, brush with a mixture of 1/4 teaspoon of salt added to 1 cup of water.
Use a rinse every 2 hours to decrease soreness in the mouth. Dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in 1 quart of water.
An antibacterial rinse may be used 2 to 4 times a day for gum disease. Rinse for 1 to 2 minutes.
If dry mouth occurs, rinsing may not be enough to clean the teeth after a meal. Brushing and flossing may be needed
Floss gently once a day
Fluoride can be delivered topically and systemically. Topical fluorides strengthen teeth already present in the mouth, making them more decay-resistant. Topical fluorides encourage remineralization of enamel, and also inhibit bacterial metabolism, reducing the growth of plaque bacteria.
Teeth with fluoride incorporated into their enamel are more resistant to acidic decalcification and more readily recalcify when pH increases. If drinking water is not adequately fluoridated, oral fluoride supplements are recommended for children from 6 months through 16 years.
For more information about tooth decay, see these resources:
Search all oral health topics - American Dental Association
Mouth & Throat Side Effects of Cancer Treatment - National Cancer Institute
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