What Is Tooth Decay?

Tooth Hurts? Here’s What You Should Know about Tooth Decay

If you’ve got a tooth in your mouth that won’t stop throbbing, stinging, or tickling, there are many possible explanations, but the most common cause of tooth pain is tooth decay. Tooth decay happens to people all over the world, and most people experience it at least once in their lifetimes.

What Is Tooth Decay?
Your mouth is full of bacteria species like streptococci, staphylococci, and lactobacilli, among other things. Fortunately, your saliva is usually more than enough to keep these bacteria strains from doing damage to your teeth. Saliva cleans and strengthens your teeth, making it difficult for the bacteria to infect them.

However, sometimes the saliva can’t do enough, and the bacteria starts to eat your teeth, causing tooth decay. And if you don’t act quickly, the bacteria will spread through your teeth and cause some serious damage.

The deeper the bacteria goes into your teeth, the worse the damage will be:

  • Decay normally starts somewhere on the enamel, or hard outer layer of your teeth. It’s much easier to stop in this layer.
  • It then spreads to the middle layer, or dentin. Once decay reaches the dentin, it can spread more easily to the rest of the tooth.
  • The innermost layer of your tooth is called the pulp. If the bacteria get this far, they can infect the nerves and blood vessels in the rest of your mouth, spreading to your other teeth, your gums, and the rest of your body.However, you’ll normally notice the decay before it reaches your pulp. You’ll see and feel the warning signs, and then you can go to the dentist before the infection becomes that serious.

What Are the Signs of Tooth Decay?
Here’s how you’ll know if you have tooth decay:

  • Your tooth will be sensitive—or even sting—when you eat or drink anything sweet, hot, or cold.
  • Your tooth will hurt significantly when you bite down on it.
  • You’ll have a constant or near-constant toothache.
  • You’ll see white, gray, brown, or black spots on the surface of your teeth.
  • You’ll have actual pits or holes in your teeth.
  • Your gums will swell.
  • Your mouth will have a foul smell or taste.

Most people notice before decay causes significant damage to their teeth, but sometimes it sneaks up on you. That’s why your dentist schedules regular checkups every six months—the regular visits protect you from unpleasant surprises. But if you notice any of these signs in your mouth, call your dentist right away.

What Causes Tooth Decay?
Your saliva is awesome. It protects your teeth from all kinds of dangers, including desiccation and bacteria. But sometimes your habits (or your genetics) make it so your saliva can’t keep up with the bacteria. The bacteria feed off of whatever’s in your mouth instead of being washed away, and they create an acid as they feed. The acid breaks down your enamel and ruins your teeth.

So what habits help the bacteria overcome your saliva (and your fluoride toothpaste)? Read the list below and see if you have any of the following habits:

  1. You don’t brush or floss. If you want your teeth to be healthy, you need to brush and floss them every single day. You should brush at least twice and floss at least once. This scrapes the bacteria and acid off of your teeth, and the fluoride kills any bacteria in the rest of your mouth. If you don’t floss, the bacteria will just build up.
  2. You eat tons of sugary and acidic foods. Bacteria feed on the sugar in your mouth, so the more sugar you eat, the more they have to eat as well. And the acid just makes their job easier, breaking down the hard part of the tooth so the bacteria can eat the softer tissues inside.
  3. You ingest tobacco. Smoking or chewing tobacco also breaks down your teeth.

There are also other causes that you have no control over. If you have diabetes, you can’t control your blood sugars as well. The bacteria in your mouth may have more to feed on, making it easier for you to develop tooth decay. There are also conditions like xerostomia that prevent you from making enough saliva, which means it can’t wash the bacteria and sugars off your teeth.

How Do You Treat Tooth Decay?
The kind of treatment you get depends on how far your tooth decay advances. Common solutions include:

  • Fillings for cavities and smaller holes in the enamel
  • Crowns for extensive damage—the crown will replace a significant portion of the tooth
  • Root canals for severe infections that reach the pulp in your tooth—you will need a bridge or implant of some kind afterward

If you think you might have tooth decay, call your dentist right away. It’s better to catch the problem when it’s small and relatively inexpensive to fix. But no matter what stage the decay is in, you can trust your dentist to make your smile whole and comfortable again.
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