Tooth Decay (Caries or Cavities)
What is tooth decay (caries or cavities)?Tooth decay (destruction of tooth enamel) is the disease known as caries or cavities. Tooth decay is one of the most common disorders, second only to the common cold, and is a highly preventable disease caused by many factors. It can occur when foods containing carbohydrates (sugars and starches), such as milk, soda, raisins, candy, cake, fruit juices, cereals, and bread, are left on the teeth. Bacteria that normally live in the mouth change these foods, producing acids. The combination of bacteria, food, acid, and saliva form a substance called plaque that sticks to the teeth. As a result, over time, tooth enamel is destroyed, causing cavities.
Who is at risk for tooth decay?We all host bacteria in our mouths which makes everyone a potential target for cavities. Risk factors that put a person at a higher risk for tooth decay include:
- diets high in sweets, carbohydrates, and sugars
- water supplies with limited or no fluoridation
- age (children and senior citizens are at an increased risk for tooth decay)
What are the symptoms of tooth decay and dental caries?The following are the most common symptoms of tooth decay and dental caries. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include white spots on the teeth that appear first. Then, an early cavity appears that has a light brown color on the tooth. The tooth color progressively becomes darker.
How are dental caries diagnosed?Dental caries are usually diagnosed based on a complete history and physical examination of your child. This may be performed by your child's physician or your child's dentist.
Preventing tooth decay:Preventing tooth decay and cavities involves five simple steps:
- Brush your child's teeth, tongue, and gums twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste, or supervise them brushing their teeth.
- Floss your child's teeth daily after the age of 2.
- Make sure your child eats a well-balanced diet and limit or eliminate sugary snacks.
- Consult your child's physician or dentist regarding the supplemental use of fluoride and/or dental sealants to protect your child's teeth against plaque.
- Schedule routine (every six months) dental cleanings and examinations for your child.
Treatment for tooth decay:Specific treatment for tooth decay will be determined by your child's physician or dentist based on:
- your child's age, overall health, and medical history
- extent of the disease
- your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- expectations for the course of the disease
- your opinion or preference
What are fillings?Teeth that have been affected by tooth decay (caries or cavities) require a filling. There are many different types of fillings, including:
- dental amalgams
Dental amalgams, also known as silver fillings, are comprised of a mixture of mercury (45 to 50 percent), and an alloy of silver, tin, and copper (50 to 55 percent). When combined with other materials in a dental amalgam, mercury's chemical nature changes. Recently, controversial views have emerged regarding mercury in dental amalgams. Some dentists feel strongly that existing mercury amalgams should be removed and replaced with substitutes. Other dentists feel there is no harm from mercury amalgams. Consult your child's dentist for further information on this topic.
- composite resins
Also known as white fillings, a composite resin is a tooth-colored plastic mixture filled with glass (silicon dioxide) that is used primarily for cosmetic improvements of the smile by changing the color of the teeth or reshaping disfigured teeth.
- porcelain veneers - a ceramic material is bonded to the front of teeth to change the tooth's color, size, and/or shape.
- crown - a "cap" that covers a cracked or broken tooth, unfixed by a filling, to approximate its normal size and shape.
- cast gold restorations - this type of restoration is often more costly and may require more than one dental fitting.
The information on this Web page is provided for educational purposes. You understand and agree that this information is not intended to be, and should not be used as, a substitute for medical treatment by a health care professional. You agree that Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital is not making a diagnosis of your condition or a recommendation about the course of treatment for your particular circumstances through the use of this Web page. You agree to be solely responsible for your use of this Web page and the information contained on this page. Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital, its officers, directors, employees, agents, and information providers shall not be liable for any damages you may suffer or cause through your use of this page even if advised of the possibility of such damages.