Tooth Decay

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Overview

Tooth decay (dental caries) is damage to a tooth that can happen when decay-causing bacteria in your mouth make acids that attack the tooth’s surface, or enamel. This can lead to a small hole in a tooth, called a cavity. If tooth decay is not treated, it can cause pain, infection, and even tooth loss.

People of all ages can get tooth decay once they have teeth—from childhood through the senior years.

Young children are at risk for “early childhood caries,” sometimes called baby bottle tooth decay, which is severe tooth decay in baby teeth.

Because many older adults experience receding gums, which allows decay-causing bacteria in the mouth to come into contact with the tooth’s root, they can get decay on the exposed root surfaces of their teeth.

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Causes

When decay-causing bacteria come into contact with sugars and starches from foods and drinks, they form an acid. This acid can attack the tooth’s enamel causing it to lose minerals.

This can happen if you eat or drink often, especially foods and drinks containing sugar and starches. The repeated cycles of these “acid attacks” will cause the enamel to continue to lose minerals. Over time, the enamel is weakened and then destroyed, forming a cavity.

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Symptoms

In early tooth decay, there are not usually any symptoms. As tooth decay advances, it can cause a toothache (tooth pain) or tooth sensitivity to sweets, hot, or cold. If the tooth becomes infected, an abscess, or pocket of pus, can form that can cause pain, facial swelling, and fever.

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Diagnosis

Tooth decay can be found during a regular dental check-up. Early tooth decay may look like a white spot on the tooth. If the decay is more advanced, it may appear as a darker spot or a hole in the tooth. The dentist can also check the teeth for soft or sticky areas or take an x-ray, which can show decay.

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Treatment

Dentists commonly treat cavities by filling them. A dentist will remove the decayed tooth tissue and then restore the tooth by filling it with a filling material.

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Helpful Tips

Here are some things you can do to prevent tooth decay:

  • Use fluoride, a mineral that can prevent tooth decay from progressing, and even reverse, or stop, early tooth decay. You can get fluoride by
    • Brushing with a fluoride toothpaste.
    • Drinking tap water with fluoride.
    • Using fluoride mouth rinse.
  • Have a good oral hygiene routine. Brush teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and regularly clean between teeth with floss or another interdental (between-the-teeth) cleaner.
  • Make smart food choices that limit foods high in sugars and starches. Eat nutritious and balanced meals and limit snacking.
  • Do not use tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco. If you currently use tobacco, consider quitting.
  • See a dentist for regular check-ups and professional cleanings.

A note to parents: Visit A Healthy Mouth for Your Baby and The Tooth Decay Process: How to Reverse It and Avoid a Cavity, to learn how to care for your baby’s and children’s teeth, including information on when to start using fluoride toothpaste. In addition, when your child’s permanent (second) teeth come in, talk to your dentist about sealants. They cover the chewing surfaces of teeth and can help prevent decay.

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Additional Resources

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Last Reviewed
July 2018