Dental cavities are lesions on the teeth that are caused by bacterial acids. They are also referred to as dental caries, and as tooth decay. Naturally occurring oral bacteria interact with food debris and sugars on the surfaces of the teeth and produce acid. This acid then dissolves the enamel coating of the teeth and begins to erode the hard surfaces beneath the enamel, causing a cavity. Cavities can cause numerous symptoms, including pain, difficulty eating, and a foul odor, and range in color from yellow to black. If left untreated, dental cavities can cause greater oral health concerns, including abscess, infection, and tooth loss.
Oral bacteria feed on simple sugars; therefore, diets high in sugar create a greater risk of dental cavities. Saliva naturally cleans the teeth and neutralizes the acids formed by these bacteria, and regular, conscientious brushing, with a fluoride toothpaste, as well as flossing can also work to fight these acids and slow the decay of the teeth. Once decay has set in and created a cavity, dentists can restore the tooth using a filling or crown, or, if the decay is significant, the tooth will be removed.
Dental cavities are related to fluoride consumption and oral health care, with inadequate health care indicating a higher risk of tooth decay, but because tooth decay is primarily caused by a diet high in sugars, people in developed countries, like the U.S., have a higher incidence of dental cavities. Regardless of background, however, nearly half the adult population of the world has some dental cavities in their teeth. Cavities are, very simply, formed over time when bacteria mixes with simple sugars and food debris and bathes the teeth in the acids that are formed. This formula has different effects on different people, based on their oral hygiene habits, the shape of their teeth, and the quantity and natural pH levels of their saliva.
In their earliest stage, as enamel is just beginning to demineralize, dental cavities usually appear as a dull white spot on the tooth. At this point, with aggressive fluoride treatment, demineralization can sometimes be reversed. Once the cavity itself forms, when the decay has begun to erode the dentin layer beneath the enamel, it is irreversible and must be treated with a restoration, usually a dental filling. At this point, cavities may begin to cause pain or discomfort, especially when exposed to extreme temperatures or very sugary foods or drinks. They are also likely to cause bad breath and a foul taste in the mouth. If left untreated, dental cavities may lead to death of the pulp inside the tooth, or to infection of soft tissues in the area. These results are more complex and more challenging to treat; it is therefore a good idea to try to treat cavities as soon as possible. The best way to prevent cavities from forming is with twice-daily brushing with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste, and daily flossing. Regular dental checkups, preferably twice a year, allow dentists to recognize and diagnose any cavities early on and to work on reversing them when possible. These regular examinations are considered an integral part of cavity prevention and maintenance of oral health.