• Written by Sarah Cash, Dental Hygienist at Maven Dental

Do you feel a sharp pain or sensitivity when eating something cold, hot, or sweet? Have you noticed a discoloured spot on your tooth? These are just some early signs that you may have a cavity.

Dental cavities, also known as dental caries or tooth decay, are a common oral health problem that affects roughly one in three Australians over the age of 15. Cavities are irreversible damage to the tooth surface, caused by plaque bacteria and frequent sugar consumption. A few factors are required for tooth decay to develop, all must be present and interplay.

Plaque is made up of millions of bacteria that is constantly forming in our mouths, certain types of these bacteria are known to cause tooth decay, the most common one being Streptococcus Mutans.

Every time we eat or drink anything that contains sugar this plaque bacteria metabolises it and produces acid, resulting in what’s known as an ‘acid attack’. Depending on the individual, an acid attack can last anywhere from 20 minutes up to 2 hours. During this time, minerals are lost from the outer surface of a tooth (Enamel) and our saliva then tries to replace that lost mineral. When more mineral is lost than replaced, a cavity starts to form. Initially, the enamel is a demineralized area that may appear like a white or brown spot/patch, and undoubtedly without lifestyle changes, this can progress into a cavity.

How to tell if you have cavities

Symptoms vary person-to-person, but the most common ones range from visible cavities in your teeth, to toothache or spontaneous pain. Tooth sensitivity, pain when eating or drinking, brown, black or white staining on the tooth and food trapping are all things to look out for.

If you notice these or are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is a good idea to visit a dentist as soon as possible, to determine the cause. Often by the time you start experiencing pain, the cavity has already developed. If not treated, cavities can get larger and start to affect deeper layers of the tooth, leading to toothache, infection and even tooth loss.

Like many health issues, ‘prevention is better than cure’, and practicing good oral health care is the best way to reduce the likelihood of developing cavities. Having regular checkups, means you can avoid any problems earlier.

How is tooth decay treated?

Treatment options can depend on the extent of the cavity and may include fluoride treatment, fillings, root canal therapy, crowns and in severe cases, tooth extraction.

It’s best to work with your dental team to agree on a treatment plan that best suits your needs.

Addressing common misconceptions

Brushing is enough to prevent cavities”

Unfortunately, brushing alone won’t prevent cavities. Whilst this will help reduce the accumulation of plaque bacteria in your mouth, it is important to make sure you have a healthy diet limiting the intake of sugar to mealtimes only.

Only children get cavities”

Anyone with teeth can get cavities: adults, teenagers, even babies. Tooth decay is the most common disease in Australia, with one in three adults over the age of 15 having untreated tooth decay. Some conditions such as hypomineralisation (a condition where the enamel forms incorrectly) can make people more susceptible to decay than others because their enamel is weaker and less resistant to acid attacks.

Once a cavity is repaired you will never get another”

Once you have had your cavities treated, it is important to stay vigilant with your oral hygiene to prevent more from developing. Minimising sugary foods and drinks to mealtimes only, brushing twice daily with fluoride toothpaste, cleaning in between your teeth and staying on top of regular dental checkups are all proactive steps that will help to prevent new cavities from occurring.

You can feel a cavity growing”

As there are no nerves in the enamel of your teeth, you are not able to feel a cavity forming. However, once the decay has reached the dentine (the inner softer tissue of the tooth), this can cause some discomfort, sensitivity or pain. This is the point where someone is able to tell they have a cavity.

Tips and suggestions to prevent tooth decay

Remember that prevention is better than cure and its best to try and prevent a cavity from developing.

The Australian Dental Association recommend these four key steps to protect your teeth and gums:

  • Brush twice daily using a fluoride toothpaste

  • Clean between the teeth using floss or interdental brushes

  • Eat a healthy balanced diet that is low in added sugar

  • Visit the dentist regularly

Effective plaque removal with good brushing twice daily and cleaning in between your teeth at least once a day is key. This will reduce the amount and type of plaque bacteria in your mouth. Using a toothpaste containing Fluoride is important, because Fluoride helps to strengthen the enamel surface making it more resistant to the acid attacks. After brushing, spit out the excess toothpaste but don't rinse with water as this allow the toothpaste to remain on the tooth surface for longer.

Limiting sugar to mealtimes only is vitally important as this allows the teeth surfaces time to repair themselves following an acid attack. It’s important to remember that things that we think are healthy may not be the best choices for the health of our teeth.

Some examples of these types of foods and drinks, include smoothies, juices, and dried fruit, this is because if fruit and vegetables go through any kind of processing the natural sugar becomes more readily available for the plaque bacteria to convert it into acid. Another one to watch out for is honey, as this is a natural sugar and is easily metabolised. Try to limit processed foods and always read the labels, watching out for hidden sugars, any ingredient ending in ‘OSE’ such as glucose or fructose, is a type of sugar, and the higher up it appears on the list of ingredients, the higher the concentration.

When thirsty between meals tap water is a great choice as 89% of the Australian communities' water supply has Fluoride added to an optimum level to help protect and strengthen teeth.

Lastly, don’t forget to visit your dental team regularly, not only can a clinician detect things early, but you can get some valuable advice about how best to look after your mouth.

By Sarah Cash, Dental Hygienist at Maven Dental