Cavities are one of the most common problems you can have with your teeth. In fact, the CDC estimates that more than 90 percent of Americans over the age of 20 have at least one cavity. For many of us, cavities were the stuff of our adolescent nightmares. But an hour in a dentist’s chair as you’re getting drilled for a filling is no fun for adults, either.
So what are cavities, exactly? How do they form? And what’s the best way to keep from getting them? We’re glad you asked.
What are Cavities?
Cavities are the result of tooth decay that’s progressed beyond the hard enamel surface of the tooth and into the calcified tissue, called dentin, that lies below. Initially, they may be minimally painful; you might not even notice them at all. But left untreated, they can become excruciating and lead to infections of the tooth pulp, abscess in the gums, even the loss of the tooth.
Also known as dental caries, “cavity” is the very literal name for the hole left by the real culprit—tooth decay. So to answer the question “what are cavities?”, we need to know what tooth decay is as well.
The Results of Tooth Decay
Tooth decay is the result of a combination of factors. Your mouth is home to hundreds of strains of bacteria. Some are beneficial; some don’t do anything at all. However, a few—Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus in particular—are known troublemakers. The problem starts when these bacteria come into contact with the carbohydrates found in the sugars and starches we eat.
The combination of food, bacteria, and saliva form a sticky film called plaque. In addition to these three ingredients, plaque also contains acid: a by-product of the interaction between the bacteria and the carbohydrates. If plaque begins to build up, this acid can become concentrated enough to start to wear away at the hard protective layer of enamel on the outer surface of your teeth.
Once your enamel wears away, it’s gone. Your tooth can’t make more. So what you’re left with is a hole in your tooth: in other words, a cavity. If you hadn’t previously experienced any pain or sensitivity due to the decay, likely you will now. Oddly enough, this is a good thing, as it will provide an ongoing reminder to see your dentist—granted, it’s an unpleasant one, but it’ll be hard to overlook.
If you do, somehow, manage to ignore the cavity’s warning, things get decidedly worse. Once the decay reaches the soft (and extremely sensitive) pulp that contains your tooth’s nerves, things can get very painful indeed. At this point, you’ll need a root canal to save the tooth. Otherwise, you’re likely to lose it.
Now that we’ve determined “What are cavities?”, how do we keep our mouth free of them? Thankfully, these little dental inconveniences are easily prevented with just a little effort and determination. By dedicating yourself to a simple oral hygiene routine, you can almost guarantee a life free of cavities. Here’s how you do it:
That’s all there is to it. It’s a small investment to make in a smile that will last a lifetime.