Dental Caries

What are dental caries and what causes them?

Dental caries are also called cavities. Cavities are caused by bacteria. When the bacteria in tooth plaque (sticky film) mix with certain types of carbohydrate, this creates acid. The acid breaks down areas of enamel, which covers the outside of a tooth. This creates a small hole in the tooth called a cavity.

What increases my risk of dental caries?

  • Poor tooth care: This happens if you do not brush or floss your teeth every day or clean your teeth well enough to remove plaque.

  • Carbohydrates: Certain carbohydrates, including fruit drinks, regular soda, desserts, hard candy, and cookies, can cause dental caries.

  • Acidic foods and drinks: Your risk for dental caries goes up if you consume lots of acidic foods and drinks. This includes lemons, regular and diet sodas, sports drinks, and fruit juice.

  • Gastric reflux: This is a condition in which stomach acid and food in the stomach back up into the esophagus. This causes stomach acid to come in contact with teeth, which may cause dental caries.

  • Not enough fluoride: Fluoride is a substance that protects teeth against dental caries. It is found in drinking water, toothpaste, mouthwash, and most foods.

  • Too little saliva in your mouth: This can be caused by certain diseases or radiation therapy of the head and neck. Certain medicines can also cause your levels of saliva to decrease. Saliva helps clear food bits from your teeth and decrease the bacteria in your mouth that cause decay.

What are signs and symptoms of dental caries?

You may not have any signs and symptoms if your dental caries have just started to form. When dental caries reach deeper parts of your tooth, you may start to feel pain. Hot or cold foods may also cause pain or make it worse. The pain may also get worse when you bite or chew.

How are dental caries diagnosed?

Your dentist will look at your teeth to check for signs of dental caries. Your dentist may use a metal tool to clean away plaque. This will allow your dentist to look at your teeth more closely. Some dentists check for cavities by touching parts of your teeth with the end of the probe. Your dentist may also use x-rays to find dental caries.

How are dental caries treated?

  • Fluoride: Dentists can give you fluoride treatments during dental visits or you may use products with fluoride at home. Fluoride can be found in the form of a mouth rinse or gel. You may buy fluoride with or without a dentist's order. Your dentist will tell you what kind of fluoride to buy and how to use it.

  • Filling: Your caregiver may remove the decayed portion of your tooth and place a filling in the tooth. The filling may help to protect your tooth from further decay.

How can I help prevent dental caries?

  • Brush your teeth at least 2 times a day with fluoride toothpaste.

  • Use dental floss to clean between your teeth at least once a day.

  • Rinse your mouth with water or mouthwash after meals and snacks.

  • Chew sugarless gum after meals and snacks.

  • See your dentist regularly for dental cleanings and oral exams.

What are the risks of dental caries?

Dental caries can come back after treatment. Severe tooth decay can lead to pain, an abscess, or loss of your tooth. Without treatment, the bacteria can spread deeper into your tooth and cause pain and sensitivity. This can lead to a root canal.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • Your tooth pain gets worse.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Your face, jaw, cheek, eye, or neck begin to swell.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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