Cavities (also called tooth decay or caries) are permanently damaged areas on the surface of your teeth that eventually turn into holes. They’re one of the most common dental health issues in the world, and anyone who has teeth can get them—even very young children and infants. If cavities get large enough that they’re affecting the deeper layers of your teeth, they can cause infections, severe toothaches, and even tooth loss.
Regular brushing, flossing, and trips to the dentist are the best ways to prevent cavities from forming—but how do they form in the first place?
The Three Stages of Cavities
Cavities don’t just develop overnight; there’s a process that happens, and it begins with plaque.
Have you ever noticed a stick film coating your teeth, especially after eating sugary or starchy foods? This is dental plaque. Every time you eat, the bacteria in your mouth feed on the leftover food particles. Then, they secrete acids that turn into plaque. As plaque accumulates in your mouth, it traps acid, sugars, and bacteria up against your teeth; in turn, these start to erode away at the enamel and demineralize it.
After a while, small holes will start to develop in the enamel. This is the first stage of a cavity. Once the enamel is worn away, it makes it easy for bacteria and acid to reach the dentin, which is the next layer in your teeth. Unfortunately, dentin is much softer than enamel, and it doesn’t resist acid as well. At this stage, you may notice some sensitivity. As the cavity gets worse, the bacteria and acid continue to travel down to the next layer: the pulp.
The pulp is the inner part of your tooth that houses the nerves and blood vessels. As the bacteria and acids start to attack the pulp, it becomes inflamed and irritated. Since the pulp is trapped inside the tooth, it has nowhere to expand as it swells; this causes it to compress the tooth’s nerves—which can be very painful. If left untreated, deep cavities can lead to severe infections or tooth loss.
Factors that Can Increase the Risk of Cavities
There are several factors that can make your teeth more prone to cavities:
- Location. Cavities are more likely to affect the molars and premolars. This is because these teeth are harder to reach, and they have a lot of nooks and crannies to trap plaque.
- Certain foods and beverages cling to your teeth for longer, like dairy products, honey, cookies, hard candy, chips, and soda.
- Eating or drinking frequently gives the bacteria in your mouth a steady supply of food.
- Waiting too long to brush and floss after eating allows plaque to form and start attacking your teeth.
- Dry mouth caused by medications, medical treatments, or certain health conditions can increase the risk of cavities.
- Chronic heartburn (GERD) can cause stomach acid to wear away at your enamel
The thing to keep in mind with cavities is that they aren’t static—they grow and get bigger over time. If you don’t have any cavities yet, that’s great news! Make sure to keep up with your oral hygiene and dentist visits. If you do have cavities, it’s best to take care of them as early as possible to prevent them from getting worse. Schedule an appointment with Enamel Dentistry, and we’ll help you nip those cavities in the bud!