Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dental Cavities (Tooth Decay)

One of the most common dental problems amongst adults and children alike, cavities can be the cause of much pain and discomfort, but they don’t have to be. This week, we examine what cavities are and how they can be prevented.

What are they?

Also known as dental caries or tooth decay, a cavity is essentially a hole that forms due to the breakdown of the hard tissues of the teeth. If left untreated, the cavity will grow larger and can cause a range of complications including gum inflammation, tooth loss, infection, or the formation of an abscess. Cavities can occur on chewing surfaces at the back of the mouth or between the teeth (coronal cavities), exposed tooth roots (root cavities), or around pre-existing fillings or crowns (recurring decay).

Why do they occur?

Cavities are the result of bacterial breakdown of the tooth. Everyone has bacteria on their teeth, but the minerals which the bacteria break down are built up again by sources such as your saliva. However, this balance can be disturbed by either a lack of saliva (this can be caused by various medical conditions) or an increase in the bacteria or it’s energy source, and this is when a cavity occurs.
Bacteria derive their energy from the simple sugars in food debris present on the surface of the tooth. Therefore, poor dental hygiene (brushing and flossing removes this debris and keeps bacteria numbers in check) and a diet high in sugar can increase the likelihood of a cavity forming.


What are the symptoms?

Classic symptoms of a cavity can include pain and difficulty eating, but often there are no symptoms at all and the cavity can only be diagnosed by a dentist.


What is the treatment?

Treatment for a cavity depends on what stage of development the cavity is at and can range from the painless topical application of fluoride all the way through to tooth extraction for advanced decay.  Generally speaking, the earlier a cavity is identified, the quicker and less expensive the treatment is.


Can they be prevented?

Key steps to preventing cavities include:

  • Good dental hygiene including flossing and brushing twice a day with dental products that contain fluoride
  • Having regular dental check-ups to prevent plaque build-up and deal with problems as soon as they arise
  • Eating a well-balanced diet with a limited amount of sugary or starchy foods and eating these as part of a larger meal to minimise tooth exposure
  • Drinking fluoridated tap water (all public water supplies in Australia are fluoridated)