What Are The Stages Of Tooth Decay?
If you’ve been experiencing a constant toothache or sharp tooth pain that comes sporadically, the chances are high that you are suffering from tooth decay. Tooth decay is one of the most common dental health problems globally. According to the Oral Health Foundation, tooth decay affects one in three adults in the UK alone. While there has been major progress in the dental industry to fight tooth decay, there is still a long way to go. Read on to learn more about tooth decay, its different stages, possible remedies and ways to prevent it.
What is tooth decay?
Tooth decay is permanent damage that can occur to a tooth leading to cavities, abscesses and in severe cases, tooth loss which lead to more complex solutions like dentures or dental implants. Tooth decay occurs when you consume foods high in carbohydrates and sugars, which stick to the surface of your teeth leading to the formation of dental plaque. If you don’t clean away the plaque by brushing and flossing your teeth as recommended by your dentist, the environment in your mouth becomes more acidic. These acids break down the enamel of your teeth, creating pockets of decay on the tooth’s surface.
Common signs of tooth decay
The symptoms of tooth decay vary depending on the extent of damage and location. When tooth decay is in the early stages, you may not experience any symptoms at all. However, as the decay advances over time, you may experience symptoms like:
- Toothache: You may experience continuous pain in the affected tooth that lasts for hours or random sharp pain without any obvious cause. Sometimes, however, it may be painless
- Tooth sensitivity: You may experience pain or tenderness when you eat or drink something cold, hot or sweet
- Brown, black or grey spots appear on the surface of your teeth
- Pain when you bite down
- Bad breath
Common causes of tooth decay
There are many factors that can lead to tooth decay but the most common include:
Poor dental hygiene
Failing to brush and floss your teeth regularly leads to the build-up of plaque, which causes tooth decay
Excessive consumption of sugary foods
The decay-causing bacteria in your mouth thrive on a sugary diet. Once they feed on the sugars, they convert them to acids, which cause tooth decay
Dry mouth issues
Saliva plays a major role in inhibiting the formation of decay as it is alkaline and can act as a buffer to combat the effects of acids produced from sugar. So if you have dry mouth issues, you are more likely to experience tooth decay.
Stages of tooth decay
Initial demineralization (white spots)
During the initial stages, tooth decay may look like white or brown patches on the tooth’s surface. These patches occur as plaque builds up and your teeth lose calcium. The bacteria in your mouth metabolize sugars from the food you consume, leading to a buildup of acids, which deteriorate the tooth enamel in a process known as demineralization.
Luckily, at this stage, tooth decay is reversible. To accomplish this, you need to visit your dentist regularly so that they can identify it in the early stages. Also, ensure you brush your teeth using fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride helps to remineralize enamel.
If you fail to brush your teeth, the acids being released into your teeth may start to break down the enamel leading to the second stage of tooth decay. Once tooth decay reaches the second stage, natural remineralization cannot replenish the needed amount of minerals that help to build up the enamel. Often, this leads to the formation of a lesion (cavity) within the tooth. At this point, it may not be possible to reverse the damage to the tooth. However, your dentist may help prevent the tooth from decaying further with various treatments.
If you don’t treat the second stage of dental decay, the carious lesion will continue to progress through enamel and into dentine. Dentine is the part of the tooth that sits between the pulp and the enamel. When the decay reaches the dentine, you may experience sharp pain or hypersensitivity in the infected tooth. At this stage, a dental filling is necessary to repair the tooth.
The pulp is the centre of the tooth, made of living cells and tissues, blood vessels and nerve endings. Once bacteria infect the pulp, inflammation sets in that eventually kills the nerves and blood vessels in the affected tooth. This results in constant pain, which is known as a toothache, and often in a dental abscess. The most common course of treatment at this stage is root canal treatment, or if this is not possible, extraction.
This is the final stage of tooth decay and by far the most painful. Here, the infection travels through the pulp and reaches the root tip of the tooth. The bacteria from the carious lesion infect the tissues and the bone surrounding the tooth. This may cause pus formation and gums and face to swell, putting you at risk for other diseases. In severe cases, a dental abscess can be fatal if left untreated. As above, root canal treatment or extraction are required.
If the tooth condition does not favour root canal treatment or the patient does not wish to undergo such treatment, the tooth will need to be extracted.
Tooth decay preventative measures
The best way to prevent tooth decay is by:
- Cutting down on sugary and acidic foods and drinks especially between meals or an hour before going to bed
- Consuming dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt, which supplies the necessary vitamins and minerals for a strong enamel
- Maintaining proper dental hygiene by brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day
- Having regular dental checkups and radiographs (x-rays). Your dentist will decide how often they need to see you based on your oral health
- Visiting your dentist if you have a continuously dry mouth.
Tooth decay is easy to manage and treat in the early stages. All you need to do is establish an oral care routine that involves the preventative measures outlined above. Also, visit your dentist regularly so that they may be able to treat tooth decay as soon as possible and prevent the tooth decay from worsening over time.
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