What Causes Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay or cavities are areas of permanent damage to the enamel on the surface of your teeth.  The weakened spots become openings or holes allowing bacteria to permeate the soft, interior tissue of your tooth, gums, or even jaw bone.  Cavities or caries are caused by acid produced by bacteria in your mouth, the frequent snacking, sugary drinks, and poor brushing habits.

Tooth decay is one of the most common health problems all over the world and it happens to anyone who has teeth- infants, children, teenagers and older adults.  It develops over time in your mouth through the following steps:

  • Plaque forms

When you develop the bad habits of not brushing your teeth well and eating too many sugary foods, a thin layer of sticky film can coat your teeth.  If the sugar and starches from your food is not cleaned off your teeth, then the sugar feeds the bacteria in your mouth. If the plaque film is not cleaned from your teeth, then it hardens into tartar.  The tartar is more difficult to remove, protects the bacteria from cleaning efforts and makes it more difficult to remove the developing plaque.

  • Plaque attacks the enamel

The bacteria in the plaque produces acid that dissolves the hard enamel on the outside of your teeth.  The acid strips minerals from your enamel, like fluoride, calcium and phosphorus.  As the enamel wears down in spots, small holes develop.  These holes or openings are known as cavities and they are the first stage of permanent tooth decay.  If the cavities are not treated when they break down the enamel, they can develop in deeper layers of your teeth. The dentin under the enamel is a softer tissue and more susceptible to the deterioration from acid.  The dentin also has tiny channels that lead to the nerve of the tooth and the acid in this layer of the tooth can lead to tooth sensitivity.

  • Tooth decay goes deeper

Once the tooth decay has damaged the tooth enamel and the dentin, the acid and bacteria move to the next inner layer of your teeth called the pulp.  The pulp has nervous tissue and blood vessels that support your tooth health but are very vulnerable to both bacteria and acid.  The bacteria causes inflammation, swelling and irritation in the pulp and without any space to expand, the pressure from the pulp on the outer layers of the tooth generates pain or a toothache.  The bacterial infection can continue to extend from the pulp into the nervous and vascular tissue and even the jaw bone.

Risk Factors For Tooth Decay

If you are concerned about your risk of tooth decay, cavities and serious bacterial infections, you should address the following problem areas:

  • Tooth location

If the tooth is more difficult to reach with a toothbrush or has more grooves and crevices to clean, you may want to be more meticulous when caring for these teeth at home.

  • Sugary or starchy foods and drinks
  • Frequent in between meal eating and drinking
  • Bedtime eating
  • Poor brushing
  • Lack of fluoride
  • Dry mouth or poor saliva production
  • Heartburn or acid reflux
  • Ill fitting fillings, sealants or dental devices

More on Tooth Decay : What is Tooth Decay?