Tooth Decay: What Causes Dental Cavities?

September 15, 2019
Tooth decay can be caused by bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans. However, diet and hygiene are also factors when it comes to the development of cavities.

Dental cavities are, essentially, tooth decay. Many different factors can contribute to the development of tooth decay. However, it is mostly related to diet, bacteria, and saliva components.

Dental cavities first damage the enamel, the superficial layer of the tooth. Then, they gradually advance until they reach the pulp, the innermost part of the tooth.

The culprits of tooth decay most often include bacteria, mainly Streptococcus mutans. This bacteria removes the minerals from tooth enamel, which can then cause cavities.

Boy with tooth decay and a finger in his mouth

Sugary products feed the bacteria that destroy tooth enamel.

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Why does tooth decay occur?

The presence of bacteria isn’t the only thing that leads to this disease. There are other risk factors:

  • Low oral pH due to the consumption of carbonated drinks, acidic foods, etc.
  • A diet that’s high in sugar and sticky foods.
  • Poor oral hygiene.
  • Low saliva production.
  • Dental crowding that makes cleaning difficult.
  • Enamel abnormalities, such as hypoplasia (thin and damaged enamel).
  • Periodontal disease.
Very unhealthy foods on the table

The sugar in our diets is largely responsible for tooth decay.

Cavities begin as white spots with a chalky texture that appears on the teeth due to thinning and weakening of the enamel. If minerals continue to be lost, the condition will worsen and a dark, blackish yellow cavity will appear.

As the cavity continues to worsen, the decay can even split the tooth. Once tooth decay reaches the dentin, the tooth will become very sensitive to cold, heat and sweet foods. When this happens, it’s time to get a dental filling.

Blonde woman touching her cheek because she has a dental pain

If it’s not treated in time, tooth decay continues to progress. Once it reaches the pulp of the tooth, the pain will be intense. Unfortunately, it’s possible that an infection or dental abscess could form at the root of the tooth. When tooth decay reaches this point, the only treatment option is a root canal.

You might like: How to Cure a Tooth Abscess with 10 Home Remedies

How to prevent tooth decay

The simplest ways to prevent tooth decay are:

1. Proper oral hygiene that eliminates plaque

Getting into the habit of brushing your teeth at least twice a day is the most effective way to prevent tooth decay. Mechanical brushing removes plaque and food debris that accumulates on the teeth and serve as a breeding ground for bad bacteria.

Woman with toothbrush

Brushing your teeth every day will help prevent the formation of the bacterial plaque that causes tartar and other oral problems.

A dentist can teach you how to brush properly as well as recommend a toothbrush and toothpaste suitable for the individual needs of each patient.

2. Use toothpaste and mouthwash with fluoride

It is very important to mouthwash and toothpaste with added fluoride. This will help your teeth to get back the minerals lost and will help strengthen your enamel.

Also, mouthwash and toothpaste help teeth become more resistant to the bacteria that erode the minerals on your enamel.

In addition to brushing and flossing your teeth more often, you can also take the following additional measures to help prevent tooth decay:

  • Change your diet: Consume less sugar and fewer sugary foods.
  • Go to the dentist at least twice per year.
  • In children, use dental sealants.

If you think you may have a cavity, it’s highly recommended that you go to the dentist to fix the problem and prevent it from worsening further.

Keep in mind that the preventative measures mentioned here should never replace traditional brushing. Brushing, flossing and using fluoride mouthwash are essential habits for preventing tooth decay.

  • Lamont, R. J., & Egland, P. G. (2014). Dental Caries. In Molecular Medical Microbiology: Second Edition. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-397169-2.00052-4
  • Lee, Y. (2013). Diagnosis and Prevention Strategies for Dental Caries. Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
  • Moynihan, P., & Petersen, P. E. (2004). Diet, nutrition and the prevention of dental diseases. Public Health Nutrition. https://doi.org/10.1079/phn2003589