From when we are very young, we are told to brush our teeth twice a day, control our sugar intake and floss regularly otherwise, we will get cavities. But what is a cavity? And is the drill-and-fill method the only way of treating dental caries?

Actually, decay or dental caries is a consequence of bacterial activity on the surfaces of our teeth. Our mouth is home to millions of bacterial species, both “good” and “bad”. A particularly sugary diet feeds the bacteria that produce acid, and this, in turn, promotes dental caries.

 Cavities are common in children and adults alike and can compromise your oral health. Treatment should begin before a painful visit to your dentist is needed. 

Dental caries is caused by several factors, including but not limited to:

1. Repeated intake of sweet sticky foods especially in between meal times.

2. Inadequate removal of plaque – not brushing or flossing efficiently.

3. Decreased defence factors such as inadequate saliva (dry mouth).

4. Old fillings with leaky margins.

All of these factors will initiate the process of dental caries, which occurs in several stages.

Stage 1: White Spots

The first stage of tooth decay shows itself as yellowish or chalky white spots on the surface of your tooth. This is due to the loss of calcium. At this stage, the decay is treated with the application of fluoride and minerals present in the saliva.

Stage 2: Enamel deterioration             

At this stage, the enamel of your tooth starts to break down. This happens underneath the surface layer. At this stage, early intervention with topical fluoride or specialised products can restore minerals back into the tooth structure and thus prevent the lesion from getting any further. This is termed remineralisation or arresting of dental caries.

Stage 3: Dentin decay           

If the cavity is left untreated, the decay will progress beyond the enamel and starts to impact the dentin, or core of your tooth, this is where the pain begins.The dentin layer of teeth contains a direct link to the nerve of the tooth and now the tooth may become sensitive to cold or sweetness.          

Unfortunately, once dental caries is in the dentin zone, remineralisation is not possible and a filling will be required.

Stage 4: Pulp infection               

 When the pulp, or tooth nerve, becomes infected due to the presence of bacteria caused by the decay, pus begins to form and the blood vessels and nerves in the pulp to die.

At this stage, root canal therapy is often the only treatment.

Stage 5: Abscess formation      

During this final stage, the infection reaches the root tip of the tooth and the bones surrounding the tooth can also become infected. At this stage, pain is severe, you may have visible swelling on your cheek and antibiotics may be prescribed to fight the infection. Root canal therapy or tooth removal is the treatment when the infection has progressed to this stage.

Don’t let it come to this!

It is relatively easy to prevent severe tooth infection. Preventative care starts with regular brushing and flossing. Twice yearly visits to the dentist are also important as:    

1. Professional cleanings will enhance the work you do at home    

2. Your dentist or hygienist can often catch cavities at stage 1 or 2.

Along with good oral hygiene and diet, it is important for us to have regular checkups and up to date X-rays. In this way, we are able to catch any cavities in the early stages, where remineralisation is still possible. In this age of minimal-intervention dentistry, prevention of dental caries is a priority.

“Beautiful teeth are a benefit everyone can enjoy”