Dental Caries, commonly referred to as tooth decay or cavities, is one of the most common health problems worldwide, especially in the developed world.
In the 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study, caries of the permanent teeth was the most prevalent of all conditions assessed.
An estimated 2.4 billion people have caries in their permanent teeth and, around 480 million children have caries in their milk teeth.
What is tooth decay?
Dental caries is the breakdown of the hard tissues of your tooth (enamel, dentin, and cementum) resulting in the formation of small pits/cavities. If left untreated, these cavities get larger and reach the tooth’s pulp, the center of the tooth that contains nerves.
Types of dental caries
Dental caries can be classified according to location, etiology, severity, rate of progression, and affected hard tissues. Classification by severity is as follows:
- Incipient: Lesion that extends less than halfway through the enamel
- Moderate: Lesion that extends more than halfway through enamel but does not reach the dentin-enamel junction (DEJ)
- Advanced: Lesion that extends to or through the DEJ but does not extend more than half the distance to the pulp
- Severe: Lesion that extends through the enamel, through the dentin, and more than half the distance to the pulp
Dental caries is caused by bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria combine with saliva, bits of food, and other natural substances to form a sticky deposit on teeth called plaque.
The bacteria in the plaque turns sugars in the foods we eat into acids. The acids dissolve calcium and phosphate in the enamel, causing holes called cavities.
Dental caries is most likely to occur in parts of the teeth where plaque forms most easily. These include:
- Cracks or pits in the tops of teeth
- Areas between the teeth
- Near the gum line
Symptoms: how to identify dental caries
The signs and symptoms of carries depend on their extent and location. Early caries may not have any symptoms at all.
But as the decay spreads, signs and symptoms may include toothache; tooth sensitivity to sweet, hot or cold foods or drinks; visible pits in your teeth; and pain when biting down.
How is dental caries treated?
There are four main ways dental professional treat caries:
- Dental fillings: A dentist uses a drill to remove the decayed area then prepares the space and fills it with an appropriate dental filling material.
- Dental crowns: A tooth-shaped cap which completely covers a tooth to restore its function and appearance.
- Root canal treatment: An endodontist removes the pulp within the tooth, prepares the root canals, and packs the space with a filling.
- Dental extraction: The removal of a tooth from its dental alveoli (socket) in the alveolar bone to prevent caries from spreading to the jawbone.
How to prevent dental caries
With a good oral and dental hygiene regimen, dental caries is largely preventable. A dentist may recommend:
- Brushing your teeth at least twice a day using fluoride toothpaste.
- Flossing once or twice a day.
- Using a mouth rinse with fluoride.
- Regular dental visits.
- Consider dental sealants, plastic coatings generally placed on the surface of back teeth.
- Reduce frequent consumption of sugars and eat tooth-healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Mayo Clinic staff. (2017). Cavities/tooth decay. mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cavities/symptoms-causes/syc-20352892
- Oralb (n.d). What are Dental Caries? oralb.com/en-us/oral-health/conditions/cavities-tooth-decay/what-are-dental-caries
- Classifications of dental caries for the national dental hygiene boards (2016) dentistryiq.com/dental-hygiene/student-hygiene/article/16352162/mustknow-classifications-of-dental-caries-for-the-national-dental-hygiene-boards
- Oral health conditions. (2016). cdc.gov/oralhealth/conditions/index.html
- Sugars and dental caries (n.d) who.int/oral_health/publications/sugars-dental-caries-keyfacts/en/