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Cavities 

Introduction

Cavities are caused by tooth decay.  Cavities are more common among children, but adults may develop them as well.  Tooth decay occurs for several reasons including plaque formation, what you eat, the use of fluoride, how well you care for your teeth, heredity, and certain medical conditions. 

Plaque plays a major role in tooth decay.  It is a thin, sticky film that constantly forms over your teeth.  Plaque is fueled by the sugar or starch in foods, such as candy, ice cream, soda pop, cereal, and French fries.  The sugars mix with the bacteria in plaque to form destructive acids.  Plaque helps to hold the acids in place against your teeth.  Plaque that has hardened on your teeth is called tarter.  Tartar provides plaque with an ideal growing space.  When the acid comes in contact with your teeth, it works to break down their outer layers, the enamel and dentin.  Eventually, the decay causes the outer layer of tooth enamel to collapse, resulting in a cavity.

Over time, the amount of plaque that you have on your teeth increases your chance of cavity formation.  Plaque is removed from your teeth each time your brush or floss.  Fluoride in drinking water and toothpaste helps to combat plaque.  Further, some mouthwashes contain plaque-fighting material.  If you do not remove plaque, it builds up.  Plaque build-up is a factor that you can reduce with good oral health care.

You may have less control over other factors that contribute to tooth decay.  Inherited factors, such as the shape of your teeth or the depth and number of ridges in your teeth can contribute to food accumulation and plaque formation.  Certain medical conditions, medications, and medical treatments can increase the risk of cavity formation in some people.  Such factors include diabetes, dry mouth, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

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Symptoms
You may have the start of a cavity and not know it.  This is because your tooth enamel does not contain nerve fibers.  Nerve fibers in your teeth carry messages about pain and temperature to your brain.  Dentin does have nerve fibers.  Once a cavity has developed in the dentin, you may experience symptoms.
 
You may feel tooth pain.  The pain may be in your tooth or near the gum line of the tooth.  Your tooth may be quite sensitive to hot and cold temperatures.  This may cause abrupt discomfort when you eat or drink hot and cold food or beverages. 
 
Some cavities may not be visible.  A cavity that has affected the enamel can change the color of that part of your tooth.  The cavity may appear dark brown or black.

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Diagnosis
Your dentist can diagnose a cavity by examining your teeth and X-ray images of your teeth.  Your dentist will look for signs of decay on your teeth.  Tooth decay may appear as a cavity or as tiny pores on the tooth enamel.  X-rays can identify cavities that are located below the tooth’s surface.

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Treatment
Treatment for a cavity involves removing the cavity and replacing it with a filling.  Your dentist will numb your gums surrounding the affected tooth so that you will not feel any pain during the procedure.  Your dentist will use a very small drilling instrument to carefully remove the cavity.  Once the cavity is removed, your dentist will fill the vacated space with a filling.  There are several different types of fillings.  Your dentist will help you decide which filling is most appropriate for you. 

Dental treatment ends the pain and sensitivity associated with cavities.  Cavities need to be treated.  If left untreated, cavities can grow larger and lead to serious dental conditions, including tooth loss.

You can prevent tooth decay and cavities with good eating habits and oral care.  Eat well-balanced meals, limit sugary or starchy foods, and avoid in between meal snacks.  Brush your teeth at least twice a day.  Floss daily to remove plaque.  Make sure that your drinking water contains fluoride.  If it does not, ask your dentist about fluoride supplements.  In some cases, dental sealants are applied to teeth as a preventative measure.  Finally, make and attend regular dental appointments for professional cleaning and examinations.

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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on April 13th, 2016. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit www.iHealthSpot.com.