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Tooth decay is a disease that damages and breaks down teeth.
Your teeth have a hard, outer layer (enamel), a middle layer (dentin) and a center (pulp).
Progress of Tooth Decay
What causes tooth decay?
Your teeth are covered by a sticky film of bacteria called plaque. After a meal or snack, the bacteria turn the sugars in foods and drinks into acid. The acid breaks down the enamel of your tooth. If the decay gets through the enamel, a hole, or a cavity, can form. Once the cavity forms in the enamel, it can continue to spread deeper into the layers of your tooth.
If tooth decay is not treated, you may feel pain, the infection can spread to other parts of your mouth, and you may even lose teeth. People with tooth pain often have trouble eating and sleeping and may miss days of work or school.
Who gets tooth decay?
• spots on your teeth
You may not notice any signs or symptoms at all, so it's important to see your dentist regularly. They will examine your teeth and take X-rays if needed.
Can you pass tooth decay on to someone else?
Not exactly, but the bacteria that cause tooth decay can be passed from one mouth to another by kissing, sharing a cup or spoon, or anything else that carries a drop of saliva. Do not share toothbrushes with anyone else, either.
Common places where decay forms
Tooth decay can damage any tooth. It often occurs between teeth and in the grooves of back teeth, where bits of food collect. Toothbrush bristles do not get into these grooves. Back teeth are also harder to keep clean because they are not as easy to reach. Another place decay can form is at the tooth root. Cavities here may go below the gum line.
People of all ages can get tooth decay
Your risk may increase if you:
• often snack and sip on sugary foods and drinks
Treating tooth decay
Treatment depends on the size and location of the decay.
• For decay that is caught early, fluoride treatments may be all that is needed.
Saliva helps prevent tooth decay, too. It reduces acid damage to teeth by washing away sticky, sugary foods. Saliva also makes acids weaker. The minerals in saliva can help repair teeth. Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candy after eating can increase saliva flow and help rinse away sugars.
Decay under a filling photo captured by Dr. Joseph Nelson II.
X-Ray of decay under a filling photo courtesy of Dr. Padmaja Mutyala.
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