Tooth decay is unfortunately a very common issue for patients. The development of tooth decay involves three distinct stages, which are outlined below.
The first phase occurs when the naturally present bacteria feeds on debris. The bacteria then covers the teeth in plaque, which is a sticky film. As a result, regular brushing and flossing are vital for removing the debris and for cleaning the plaque before it is able to harden and form tartar.
The second phase of the process takes place when the acids, which exist in the plaque, attack the minerals found in the hard, protective enamel layer of the teeth. This attack creates small holes in the enamel which allows bacteria and acids to break through the dentin layer of the teeth. Dentin is softer and located underneath the enamel. Dentin also has tiny tubes which are able to communicate with the nerves of the teeth. Because of this, cavities often cause tooth sensitivity.
In the third and final phase, the bacteria and acid attack the tooth’s pulp. The pulp is the innermost layer of the tooth. It contains blood vessels and nerves. When the pulp is effected, it can result in swelling and pain. Along with extreme levels of discomfort, when it is not treated, this type of damage can cause an infection or even tooth loss.
Dentists often use the following procedures to identify tooth decay:
- Probing the teeth with a special instrument
- Review of dental X-rays
- Thorough review of symptoms
- Visual examination of the teeth and mouth
Through the evaluation procedures, the dentist is also able to determine which type of cavity exists. This can include a smooth surface, pit and fissure, or root cavity.
Before symptoms of serious issues occur, routine dental appointments can help to identify cavities or other issues in the mouth. Prompt intervention and treatment and can help to improve a successful reversal of the early stages of tooth decay. Early intervention can also help prevent the decay from progressing further and avoid irreversible damage. When cavities are treated prior to the presence of pain, extensive treatment solutions are typically not required.
The treatment plan for a cavity will depend on various factors such as the severity of the decay, where the cavity is located and other patient specific factors. Below are the most common types of tooth decay treatments:
- Crowns: In the event the patient has extensive tooth decay or the tooth is extremely weak, a crown may be required. The crown is placed on top of the tooth after the decay is removed.
- Fillings: A filling is the most common type of treatment used once the decay has progressed beyond the initial stage. Fillings are made from various materials including tooth-colored composite resin, porcelain and dental amalgam.
- Fluoride treatments: When a cavity is identified and is in the initial stage, fluoride treatments can help to restore damaged enamel. Fluoride can completely reverse tooth decay in some cases. These treatments often come in the form of a liquid, gel, foam or varnish.
- Root canals: Once tooth decay reaches the pulp, a root canal may be required. Root canals are used when the tooth is damaged or infected, but does require extraction. The procedure for a root canal includes removing the diseased tooth pulp and placing a medicated treatment for the infection. A filling is then used to replace the pulp.
- Tooth extraction: In the most severe cases, once tooth decay has progressed beyond repair, it will require extraction. The dentist can provide options for a replacement of the missing tooth which may include an implant or bridge.