Dental cavities, also known as dental caries or tooth decay, are damaged areas in the hard outer surface of your teeth. Cavities are one of the world’s most common health problems, and they are especially common in children, teenagers, and older adults. Without treatment, cavities get larger and can cause severe toothache, infection, and possibly tooth loss. Symptoms of cavities include toothache, tooth sensitivity, mild or sharp pain when eating or drinking, visible holes in the tooth, brown or black staining on any surface of tooth, and pain when biting.
The formation of cavities starts with plaque buildup. Plaque is a sticky film that coats the teeth and is produced by bacteria that feed on sugars from the food that you eat. As the bacteria feed, they produce acid, which damage the outside of the tooth (enamel). Once the enamel is worn away, the acid can attack the next layer (dentin), which is softer and weaker than enamel. If the acid gets past the dentin layer, it can reach the inner tooth (pulp), which usually causes severe toothache, sensitivity, and pain when biting. In some cases, the body can send white blood cells to fight off the bacteria in the inside of the tooth, which can cause a collection of pus (abscess).
Risk factors for a cavity include eating certain foods or drinks that cling to teeth for a long time, frequent snacking, bedtime feeding, inadequate brushing and flossing, young age, dry mouth, and eating disorders. A dentist can easily diagnose a cavity by asking about tooth pain and sensitivity, examining the mouth, probing teeth with small tools, and looking at x-rays of the teeth. Treatments for cavities include fillings, crowns, root canals, and tooth extractions. The earlier a cavity is caught, the more likely the tooth can be saved with minor repair (fillings). If you have symptoms of a cavity, talk to a dentist to discuss the treatment option that is best for you.