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Tooth decay, also known as dental caries or cavities, is a common health concern that affects people of all ages. It is a process that involves the breakdown of tooth structure due to the activities of certain bacteria that live in dental plaque. Understanding tooth decay is vital not only because it is prevalent but also because of its impact on overall health. Unaddressed tooth decay can lead to pain, infection, tooth loss, and, in severe cases, can affect other systems in the body, demonstrating the importance of prevention and treatment.

What is Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay, or dental caries, is a destructive dental condition that occurs when the hard enamel of a tooth is damaged by prolonged exposure to harmful bacteria found in plaque. The mouth is a natural home for these bacteria, which thrive on the sugars we consume in our diet.

The tooth decay process begins when these bacteria metabolize sugar and produce acids as a by-product. This acid attacks the tooth enamel, the hard outer layer of our teeth. Over time, this acid can erode the enamel, creating tiny openings or holes — the first stage of cavities.

Once areas of decay have penetrated the enamel, they can advance to deeper layers of the tooth, such as the dentin and the pulp, where nerves and blood vessels reside. Decay can lead to severe discomfort, toothache, infection, and tooth loss. Understanding the process of tooth decay helps emphasize the importance of regular dental hygiene and professional check-ups to prevent and manage this common dental concern.

Tooth Decay or Cavities?

Though often used interchangeably, ‘tooth decay’ and ‘cavities’ refer to different stages of dental deterioration. Tooth decay is a broad term describing the process where harmful bacteria damage the tooth structure. This process can affect the outer layer of the tooth (the enamel) and the inner layer (the dentin).

On the other hand, a ‘cavity’ is a specific stage of tooth decay. Cavities refer to the holes or openings in the teeth that form due to prolonged decay. These holes occur when the acid produced by bacteria has eroded the enamel and potentially the dentin layer beneath. All cavities result from tooth decay, but not all decay results in cavities. However, without proper dental hygiene and timely intervention, tooth decay can lead to the formation of cavities.

Causes of Tooth Decay

  1. Poor Oral Hygiene: Inadequate brushing and flossing to remove plaque and stuck food particles contribute to tooth decay.
  2. High-Sugar Diet: Consuming foods and drinks high in sugar fuels the bacteria in the mouth, which produce acid that destroys tooth enamel.
  3. Lack of Fluoride: Fluoride, found in toothpaste, certain foods, and tap water in some areas, helps prevent tooth decay by making teeth more resistant to acid attacks.
  4. Dry Mouth: Saliva protects teeth by washing away food particles and acids produced by bacteria. Conditions that reduce saliva production can increase the risk of cavities.
  5. Acid Reflux Disease: Acid reflux, or GERD, can bring stomach acids into the mouth, promoting tooth enamel erosion.
  6. Eating and Drinking Patterns: Frequent snacking or sipping sugary drinks can provide a constant supply of acids that wear down tooth enamel.

Impact of Tooth Decay on Overall Health

Understanding Tooth Decay - Camrose Dentist

Oral health is a critical component of overall health and well-being. It is not confined to our mouths but has far-reaching effects on various body systems. Poor oral health, characterized by tooth decay, can lead to serious health issues if not addressed promptly.

Tooth decay and related infections can directly impact the body’s systemic health. Bacteria from the mouth can enter the bloodstream and reach any part of the body, causing systemic infection. This can lead to conditions such as endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart’s inner lining.

Moreover, tooth decay has been linked to respiratory diseases. Aspiring or inhaling bacteria from the mouth can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory tract infections.

Chronic tooth decay and oral infections can also affect metabolic control, exacerbating diabetes. Studies suggest that severe oral disease can increase blood sugar, contributing to increased periods when the body functions with a high blood sugar level. This puts people with diabetes at increased risk for diabetic complications.

Pregnant women with poor oral health are also at risk. Periodontitis, a severe form of gum disease, has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.

In addition, poor oral health is linked with certain kinds of cancer. Mouth bacteria have been linked to certain types of head and neck cancers.

Finally, tooth decay and loss can affect mental health, impacting self-esteem and leading to social anxiety and depression. Eating, speaking, and socializing without discomfort or embarrassment is vital to overall emotional well-being.

Therefore, good oral hygiene practices and regular dental check-ups are essential to ensure not just oral health but overall health and well-being.

Symptoms of Tooth Decay

Early Signs: Identifying the Early Warning Signs of Decay

You may not notice any symptoms at the initial stages of tooth decay. As the decay gets worse, it may cause signs and symptoms such as:

  • Toothache: This is often the first noticeable sign of a cavity. The pain might be constant, intermittent, or only when eating something sweet, hot, or cold.
  • Tooth Sensitivity: You might feel a sharp pain when eating or drinking something hot, cold, or sweet. This occurs as the enamel wears down and dentin, the inner layer, gets exposed.
  • Visible Holes or Pits in your Teeth: These are actual cavities visible to the naked eye.
  • Stains on Teeth: You might notice white, brown, or black stains on the surface of your teeth. These stains could be an early indicator of enamel erosion and potential cavities.

Progression: How the Symptoms Change as Decay Progresses

As tooth decay advances from enamel to dentin and pulp, the symptoms become more severe:

  • Severe Toothache: The pain may worsen, becoming sharp and continuous.
  • Swelling in Gums: As the decay reaches the pulp, the tooth’s nerves might become infected, leading to swelling and tenderness in the gums around the tooth.
  • Bad Breath or Bad Taste in Mouth: This can be due to a decaying tooth or an infection.
  • Loss of Tooth: In extreme cases, the tooth may have to be removed if it’s extensively decayed and cannot be saved with a filling or crown.

Complications: Potential Issues if Decay is Left Untreated

Ignoring the signs of tooth decay can lead to severe complications, such as:

  • Dental Abscess: If decay is left untreated, it can lead to an abscess, a painful, pus-filled swelling.
  • Tooth Loss: Advanced tooth decay can lead to loss of the tooth.
  • Impaired Chewing: Severe pain and tooth loss can make it difficult to chew, affecting nutrition.
  • Infection: The infection can spread to the jawbone, neighbouring teeth, or other body parts, leading to potentially serious health problems.

Diagnosis of Tooth Decay

Regular Dental Check-ups

Routine dental visits are a vital component in diagnosing and managing tooth decay. These check-ups allow your dentist to monitor your oral health and detect any early signs of decay before they progress. Regular dental cleanings also remove plaque build-up that at-home brushing might miss, reducing the risk of decay. Dentists generally recommend having a check-up every six months, although this can vary based on your specific dental health needs.

Dental X-Rays

Dental X-rays play a pivotal role in detecting tooth decay. These images provide a detailed view of the different parts of your teeth and gums, allowing your dentist to identify any hidden areas of decay that may not be visible during a regular examination. X-rays are particularly useful in detecting decay between teeth and beneath existing fillings. While not needed at every dental visit, regular X-rays can help monitor changes or developments over time.


During a dental examination for decay, your dentist will comprehensively evaluate your mouth. This includes inspecting the teeth, gums, and other oral tissues. Your dentist may use a small mirror and other dental instruments to check for plaque, tartar, and cavities. They may also examine the quality of your fillings and other dental work. Additionally, your dentist will evaluate your bite and jaw movement for irregularities. The examination may also involve probing your teeth with a dental instrument to check for soft areas, a common sign of tooth decay. Lastly, as mentioned earlier, the dentist may take X-rays to get a more detailed picture of your oral health.

Prevention of Tooth Decay

Maintaining a healthy mouth and preventing tooth decay involves several essential steps:

Proper Oral Hygiene

Proper oral hygiene forms the cornerstone of dental health. It includes:

  • Brushing Twice a Day: Brush your teeth at least twice daily using fluoride toothpaste. Ensure you brush all surfaces of the teeth.
  • Floss Daily: Flossing helps remove food particles and plaque between your teeth and under the gumline, areas often missed by brushing alone.
  • Rinse with a Mouthwash: Use a mouthwash that carries the ADA Seal of Acceptance, which indicates it has been tested for effectiveness in reducing plaque and gingivitis.

Healthy Diet

What you eat plays a significant role in oral health:

  • Limit Sugary Foods and Drinks: Sugar fuels the bacteria in your mouth, contributing to tooth decay. Try to minimize your intake of sugary snacks and beverages.
  • Eat a Balanced Diet: Consume various foods from the five major food groups to ensure you get all the nutrients for good oral health.

Regular Dental Visits

Regular check-ups with your dentist can help prevent dental problems or spot them early. The American Dental Association recommends dental check-ups at intervals determined by your dentist. During these visits, your dentist can provide professional cleaning to remove plaque buildup and check for signs of tooth decay.

Fluoride Treatments

Fluoride treatments can help prevent tooth decay by making the teeth more resistant to acid attacks from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth. They can be administered in a dental office as a gel, foam, or rinse. At home, fluoride can be applied through toothpastes and mouthwashes that contain this mineral. If you’re at a high risk of developing dental decay, your dentist might recommend additional fluoride treatment.

Treatment Options for Tooth Decay

Treating tooth decay depends on the extent and stage of the decay, and there are several options available:


Fillings are the most common treatment for tooth decay, especially for less severe cases where the decay hasn’t reached the pulp. The decayed material is removed from the tooth, filling the area with a substance like silver amalgam, composite resin, porcelain, or even gold.


Crowns are used when decay has damaged a significant portion of the tooth, and a simple filling is not enough. After removing the decayed part of the tooth, your dentist will place a crown over the remaining part of the tooth. Depending on the preference and budget, crowns can be made from metal, porcelain fused to metal, resin, or ceramic.

Root Canals

When tooth decay has reached the pulp or the center of the tooth that contains nerves and blood vessels, a root canal may be the appropriate treatment. The dentist removes the decayed pulp, cleans and shapes the root canal, and fills and seals the space. A crown is usually placed over the tooth to restore its natural appearance and shape.

Tooth Extraction

When the tooth decay is so advanced that the tooth can’t be saved, tooth extraction may be the only option. This is generally the last resort when other treatments can’t restore the tooth’s health.

Dental Implants and Bridges

After a tooth extraction, dental implants or bridges are used to replace the missing teeth. A dental implant involves placing a metal post in the jawbone, onto which a replacement tooth is mounted. Conversely, a bridge uses the teeth on either side of the gap to hold a false tooth in place. Both these options serve to restore the look and function of natural teeth.

Tooth decay is a common oral health problem but can be effectively managed with proper preventive measures and early treatment. If you experience symptoms of tooth decay, such as toothache or sensitivity, schedule an appointment with your dentist for appropriate evaluation and treatment.


Understanding, preventing, and treating tooth decay is paramount to oral health. Tooth decay, if left unaddressed, can lead to serious complications like gum disease and tooth loss. Prevention is the best approach, which includes maintaining good oral hygiene through regular brushing, flossing, mouthwash, a balanced diet, and regular dental checkups. However, if tooth decay occurs, various effective treatments are available, including fillings, crowns, root canals, and even tooth extraction, followed by dental implants or bridges. Remember, your teeth are essential to your overall health, and taking care of them should be a priority. If you suspect you have tooth decay, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Your smile depends on it!

Don’t let tooth decay steal your smile! At Mirror Lake Dental, located in beautiful Camrose, Alberta, our highly skilled dental professionals are ready to help you maintain optimal oral health. Use our contact form to book your appointment today and take the first step towards a healthier, brighter smile!