Dental caries or cavities, more commonly known as tooth decay, are caused by the breakdown of tooth enamel. This breakdown occurs when bacteria on the teeth break down the food particles that are stuck on the teeth and produce acids that destroy the tooth enamel, resulting in tooth decay.
Although dental caries is largely preventable, it is known to affect almost 60%-90% of children aged 6 to 11 years and adolescents aged 12 to 19 years.
Tooth decay is four times more common than asthma among adolescents aged 14 to 17 years. Dental caries also affects adults, with 9 out of 10 over the age of 20 having some degree of tooth-root decay.
A vast majority of cases that land in a dental health professional’s clinic are related to dental cavities.
Causes and Risk Factors Associated with Tooth Decay
Tooth decay may be associated with several reasons that cause a buildup of plaque on the tooth surface. These factors include:
Poor oral hygiene: Irregular brushing is the primary reason behind tooth decay. Brushing is required to wipe off the food particles from the teeth. Stuck food particles can be a breeding ground for microbes, which can cause plaque buildup.
Acidic pH in the oral cavity: Plaque or dental biofilm is a collection of bacterial deposit; it is a colorless, sticky film adhering to the tooth surface. When food containing sugars are eaten, the bacteria present in plaque break down these sugars and produce acids.
Although the enamel is the strongest structure in the body, these acids can demineralize the enamel extending into the dentine. If the condition is left untreated, it may extend to the pulp. However, dental caries in the enamel that have not penetrated the dentine can be remineralized.
Certain foods: Tooth decay may also be caused by a diet replete with sugar, carbs, and acids. Foods that have a tendency to stick to the teeth are also culprits. It is advised to practice proper hygiene after eating or drinking foods such as caramel, candies, chocolates, dried fruits, cookies, sweetened cereals, and soda.
Existing tooth cavities: In people who have been diagnosed with deep crevices in their teeth, the infection can easily spread to the surrounding teeth. The use of a dental sealant can help prevent the spread of infection to uninfected teeth. Dental sealants are placed on the pits and fissures on the chewing surfaces of permanent teeth.
Dry mouth: The constant flow of saliva helps wipe out the food particles and prevents them from clinging to the teeth. People with dry mouth are at risk of developing cavities.
Teeth grinding: The habit of teeth grinding can degrade the enamel of the teeth and can increase the incidence of tooth decay.
Progressing age: As you progress in age, the enamel wears out. Also, multiple medications (known as polypharmacy), such as those prescribed to older adults to manage their condition, can cause dry mouth, leading to tooth decay and more frequently root caries.
Familial: Tooth decay may also be related to genetics. This is because certain bacteria tend to cause dental decay and periodontal disease. Genetics/family history plays a role in the population of certain kinds of bacteria in the oral cavity.
Dental appliances: Improper use of and lack of cleanliness when wearing dental caps, implants, fillings, or dentures can trap food particles and cause tooth decay.
Eating disorders: People with mental disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, who frequently purge out the ingested food due to the disorder, are likely to be afflicted with dental problems.
Signs that You Have a Decaying Tooth and Cavities
Early detection of a cavity is necessary to evaluate your condition. A decaying tooth has white or brown spots in the preliminary stages. As the decay progresses, it will be accompanied by several symptoms in the following order:
- Visible pits/holes in the tooth
- Mild sensitivity to sugars and/or temperature
- Pronounces sensitivity or mild pain to cold/hot, which goes away when the stimulus is removed
- Pain to cold/hot that lingers when stimulus removed
- Spontaneous pain
- Pain on biting and chewing
- Pain that eventually comes and goes and is associated with swelling and pus discharge
Diagnosing Tooth Decay and Cavities
In order to avoid dental caries or treat them at the early stages, early detection is key.
As soon as you see the warning signs manifested in the form of the above-mentioned symptoms, visit your dentist. He/she will be able to analyze your condition by taking a close look at your teeth.
- Make sure to visit your dentist for a routine exam.
- Your dentist might get an X-ray of the affected region to determine the area that has decayed.
Standard Treatments for Tooth Decay and Cavities
If cavities are not treated, they can lead to severe toothache, infection, and even tooth loss, among other complications.
Besides a disciplined home care routine, the following treatment procedures are needed to treat the decay and cavities.
- Dental filling: If there is cavity formation, a filling can be done to restore the tooth to its original form. The dentist will remove the decayed portion and replace it with a filling material to pack the cavity.
- Dental crown: Crowns are fixed restorations made to restore the damaged tooth that has cracked, has extensive decay, or has had root canal treatment to its original shape and size. They are permanently cemented.
- Root canal: At times, the infection may penetrate down the roots of the teeth known as the pulp region. This can be treated by the removal of the infected pulp portion of the affected region.
- Tooth extraction: A severely damaged tooth may be extracted to prevent the spread of infection to nearby teeth. It may be replaced with an implant later on.
Remedies to Manage Tooth Decay and Cavities at Home
It is of utmost importance to visit your dentist for a checkup if you experience any of the signs and symptoms. However, there are several natural remedies that can help provide relief from the toothache and promote your oral health.
1. Dab Clove Oil
Clove is one of the most important ingredients in treating any kind of dental issue, including cavities. Due to its anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antibacterial properties, clove can help alleviate pain and prevent the cavity from spreading.
- Dilute 2 to 3 drops of clove oil with 1/4 teaspoon of sesame seed oil. Put a few drops of this solution on a cotton ball and dab the solution on the affected tooth. Repeat this every night before going to bed.
- Another option is to gently chew a whole clove to extract its oil. Then, keep the clove under your tongue for several minutes.
2. Swish with Saltwater
Salt can also be used to treat cavities due to its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It can reduce inflammation, ease pain, draw out any infection, and prevent the growth of bacteria in the mouth.
Using salt containing added fluoride in your diet can help provide strength to your teeth.
- Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 glass of warm water. Swish a mouthful of this solution in your mouth for 1 minute, concentrating on the affected tooth. Follow this treatment three times a day until your symptoms subside.
- Alternatively, mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a little mustard oil or lemon juice to make a paste. Massage the gums gently with this paste for a few minutes, and then gargle with warm water. Repeat twice daily for a few days to kill bacteria.
3. Do Oil Pulling
Oil pulling is an age-old practice that can reduce cavities as well as bleeding gums and bad breath. It helps clean the mouth of harmful bacteria that are responsible for different types of dental problems. It helps to clean the plaque that causes tooth decay.
- Put 1 tablespoon of sesame oil in your mouth.
- Gently swish it around for about 20 minutes.
- Spit it out. Avoid gargling or swallowing the oil.
- Rinse your mouth with warm water. Use saltwater for added antimicrobial benefits.
- Brush your teeth as usual.
- Do this daily in the morning, on an empty stomach.
This can also be done with sunflower or coconut oil.
4. DIY Garlic Mouthwash
Garlic has been used in traditional medicine for its antimicrobial properties.
A study in 2013 supported the antimicrobial activity of garlic extract against microbial pathogens that cause plaque formation.
- Prepare a paste from 3 to 4 crushed garlic cloves and 1/4 teaspoon of rock salt. Apply it on the infected tooth. Leave it on for 10 minutes before rinsing with a mouthwash. Do this twice daily for a few weeks to reduce cavities.
- You can also rub garlic oil on the affected tooth to get quick relief from pain due to a cavity.
- Eating raw garlic regularly can also provide effective results.
5. Try Licorice
According to a study published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Natural Products, licorice root may help keep teeth healthy. There are two effective antibacterial compounds in dried licorice root – licoricidin and licorisoflavan A – that can prevent the growth of cavity-causing bacteria. Plus, this herb can also reduce plaque.
- Use dried licorice root powder to brush your teeth on a regular basis.
- You can also use a soft stick of licorice like a toothbrush to brush your teeth daily.
6. Massage with Turmeric Paste
In Ayurveda, turmeric is often used to provide respite from cavity pain. It has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that help keep the gums healthy and prevent tooth decay due to bacterial infection. Turmeric can also be used as a pit and fissure sealant and mouth wash.
- Apply some turmeric powder on the affected teeth. Leave it on for a few minutes and then rinse well with warm water.
- Another option is to mix 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder with a little mustard oil and use the mixture to massage your teeth and gums. Leave it on for 10 minutes and then spit it out.
Repeat either of these remedies once or twice daily for at least a few days.
7. Use Indian Lilac Sticks
Indian lilac, also known as neem, is another popular remedy for cavities. Its antibacterial properties can easily destroy cavity-causing bacteria. Plus, it helps maintain healthy and strong teeth and gums.
- Rub the juice of neem leaves on the teeth and gums. Leave it on for a few minutes and then rinse it off with warm water. Follow this treatment one to two times daily.
- You can also use soft neem sticks to brush your teeth.
- You can even use a toothpaste containing neem oil.
8. Eat Indian Gooseberry
Another well-known herb that can help reduce cavities is Indian gooseberry, also known as amla. Being high in antioxidants and vitamin C, it combats bacteria and fights infections.
It also promotes healing and development of connective tissue, which benefits the gums. Additionally, it cleans the mouth and helps get rid of bad breath.
- Eat one fresh amla daily.
- You can also take 1/2 teaspoon of dried amla powder along with 1/2 glass of water daily.
- If fresh or powdered amla is not available, consider taking a capsule. Consult your doctor first.
9. Consume Broccoli and Green Leafy Vegetables
Broccoli and green vegetables have an abundant supply of phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals essential to maintain your oral health. It can help supply calcium that is needed to keep the bones and teeth healthy.
The folic acid content of the spinach, kale, and other leafy greens can encourage oral health by tending to the gums and teeth.
The excess effort to chew the leafy greens can scrub your teeth and, thus, help cleanse the mouth.
- Enrich your diet with leafy green vegetables such as collard, spinach, and kale.
10. Include Apple and Citrus Fruits in Your Diet
An “apple a day” is great for the teeth, too.
Although not a substitute for brushing and flossing, eating an apple or other fibrous fruits such as oranges, carrots, or celery helps clean your teeth and increases salivation, which can neutralize the citric and malic acids left behind in your mouth.
This is because chewing the fibrous texture of apples stimulates your gums, increasing saliva flow and further reducing the buildup cavity-causing bacteria. And more saliva is good because it decreases the acidity in your mouth and washes away food particles that cause decay.
- Be sure your diet includes citrus and other fresh fruits rich in vitamin C, such as apples, pears, strawberries, pineapples, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
11. Drink Wheatgrass Juice
The natural antibacterial properties of wheatgrass help fight tooth decay and cavities as well as reduce the pain resulting from cavities.
Plus, wheatgrass is a highly concentrated source of vitamin A and E along with minerals including iron, calcium, and magnesium, which are essential for healthy and strong teeth.
- Drink 1/2 glass of wheatgrass juice daily on an empty stomach as a preventive measure to fight cavities.
- Another option is to mix 1 part wheatgrass juice with 6 parts water. Swish the mixture in your mouth for 1 minute and spit it out. Follow this treatment two to three times a day.
- You can also chew some wheatgrass slowly and thoroughly. This is considered a healthy exercise to make the gums and teeth strong.
Types of Cavities
Tooth decay and cavities, medically termed as dental caries, can damage the structure of the teeth because of infection. This infection occurs as a result of plaque formation that seeps into the enamel, causes demineralization, and attacks the soft and sensitive part called dentine.
The dentine is located under the enamel and covers the soft pulp. As the enamel gets eroded, it falls down and forms cavities.
A decay in tooth structure occurs when food containing sugars are eaten and bacteria on the teeth break down those sugars and produce acids. These acids dissolve/demineralize the tooth structure, resulting in dental caries.
Thus, the four factors that can contribute to dental caries are:
- Plaque (collection of bacteria)
- Food debris
- Tooth structure
The tooth cavity may extend to the pulp of the tooth located in the middle where a network of blood vessels and nerves are present. The type of dental caries depends on its development stage and on the kind of teeth that it attacks.
The most common forms of caries are:
Pit and fissure cavity: This cavity usually appears on the chewing surface of molars and premolars as well as on the back surface of the front teeth.
This happens because the pits and fissures on the chewing surface act as areas for plaque to adhere to easily. Plaque can deposit quickly on these surfaces. The development of a plaque on the teeth may lead to cavity formation.
Smooth-surface cavity: This cavity develops in between the spaces of the teeth and along the point of attachment of the teeth and gums. This type of cavity can be cleaned with regular brushing and flossing in the initial stage.
Root cavity: This type of cavity occurs on the root surface and is prevalent among older adults. It happens as a result of receding gums due to harsh brushing practices or other gum diseases over the course of time.
Complications Regarding Tooth Decay and Cavities
Tooth decay and cavities can riddle your teeth with several complications that will take a toll on your oral health. It is imperative to seek medical attention to escape from the following complications:
- Cavities can cause the teeth to weaken. Extensive decay may cause teeth to fracture at the gum line or lead to tooth extraction.
- Gingivitis is a gum disease that is marked by inflammation in the gums caused by an accumulation of plaque on the teeth and on the gums. The first most common symptom of plaque accumulation is gingivitis; thus, it should not be ignored.
- Periodontitis is a severe inflammation of the gums affecting the tissues and bones in the sockets of the teeth.
- There might be a chance of inflammation deep in the neck. This is because tooth abscesses can spread to the lymph nodes in the neck region. These lymph nodes help to fight infections in our body.
- As bacteria come in contact with sugars/food, they produce acids that demineralize the enamel and dentine. Progression of this demineralization infects the tooth structure. When this process reaches the pulp tissue, it quickly creates a necrotic pulp. This necrotic pulp causes a dental abscess or pus-filled swelling. This infection may be symptomatic with fever and pain. Severe dental abscesses may lead to dental sepsis.
- Difficulty in chewing and biting can intervene in fulfilling the daily nutrition requirements of the affected child or adult.
- A toothache may entail a loss of work and school hours. Because children are prone to tooth decay and cavities, a case of perpetually decaying teeth can be a reason for frequent absences from school. This can affect their school performance at large.
When to See a Dentist
Visit your dentist every 6 months or as recommended by your dentist in accordance with your dental health. Seek immediate professional help if you:
- Experience sensitivity to hot or cold food and drinks
- Have a toothache
- Feel pain when you chew or bite food
- Observe white, black, or brown stains on the surface of your teeth
Additional Tips to Prevent Tooth Decay and Cavities
- Aside from brushing your teeth twice a day, floss twice a day and clean your tongue daily. These will help keep your teeth clean and wipe off any remaining food particles and cavities. An electric toothbrush is found to be more effective in plaque removal than manual brushing. A water pick is an additional aid that can be very useful in patients with dental bridges/implants/braces or motor coordination disorder where flossing may be difficult.
- Regularly use an antibacterial mouthwash. This can help kill bacteria, remove plaque, and prevent gum disease.
- Rinse your mouth with warm water after every snack or drink.
- Avoid foods and drinks with refined sugar as they create an acidic environment upon contact with plaque. These include sugary or acidic drinks.
- Refrain from drinking or eating foods just before bedtime. If you do so, make sure you brush your teeth after.
- Drink green and black tea to reduce plaque buildup and the growth of bacteria in your mouth.
- Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate the production of saliva and promote your oral health.
- Drinking cranberry juice regularly also helps improve oral hygiene.
- Make sure to eat foods rich in vitamin A, D, E, and K, as well as enough calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and other key minerals.
- Eat high-fiber foods to help increase the production of saliva in your mouth, which serves as a natural protector for your teeth.
- Take a vitamin D supplement.
With these remedies and suggestions, you can naturally prevent cavities and show off your healthy smile with pride!
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