You spelled it right – dental caries. It is the medical term for cavities or tooth decay. It is a bacterial infection that causes demineralization and destruction of the teeth’s enamel, dentin and cementum – these are the hard tissues of the teeth.
Dental caries results from the production of acid caused by bacterial fermentation of food debris accumulated on the tooth surface. The hard tissues progressively weaken and break down if demineralization exceeds saliva production and other remineralization factors from calcium and fluoridated toothpastes. As the hard tissues break down, dental caries develop. Holes or cavities in the teeth start to show up when acids destroy the tooth enamel, dentin and cementum.
Sometimes, a person may not be aware of the presence of caries. The earliest sign is the appearance of a chalky white spot on the surface of the tooth. This is already an indication of enamel demineralization. This white spot lesion will continue to demineralize and will turn brown and will form a cavity. Once a cavity forms the lost tooth structure can no longer be regenerated. If a tooth shows a brownish and shiny lesion, it suggests that dental caries developed but the demineralization process has stopped leaving the stain. If decay is active, it is lighter in color and looks dull. When decay has eaten through the enamel, the teeth may manifest sensitivity to sweet, hot or cold foods or drinks.
If caries is detected early while cavity has not formed yet, tooth decay can be stopped. With the help of fluorides and other prevention methods, a tooth in the early stages of decay will be able to repair itself.
However, if the caries gets worse, causing a break in the enamel, only the dentist can repair the damaged tooth. The standard treatment for cavity is to fill the tooth. If the dentist uses a drill, a numbing agent will be injected in the area. If laser is used to fill the tooth, a numbing shot is not necessarily required. The dentist will remove the decayed material in the cavity before filling the cavity.
There are different materials used as tooth filler – dental amalgam or composite resin. The dental amalgam or composite filling is a silver-gray material made from silver, copper, mercury, or other metals, while composite resin is tooth-colored, offering a better visual appearance. The newer resins available in the market are very durable.
Decayed molars and premolars are filled with amalgams since the metal is not visible. On the other hand, composite and ceramic materials are used for all teeth.
Sometimes, because of the size of the cavity, the remaining tooth may not be able to support enough filling material to repair. To address this problem, the dentist will remove the decay and cover the tooth with a ceramic inlay or artificial crown. This is an outpatient service or procedure so it can be done in the dental office of the laboratory.
If the nerve or pulp of the tooth is gravely affected by the decay, the dentist may perform a root canal. This procedure involves removing the center of the tooth (including the nerve, blood vessel and tissue) along with the decayed portions of the tooth. The roots are then filled with a sealing material. Alternatively, a crown can be placed over the filled tooth.
The key to the prevention of developing dental caries is oral hygiene. By oral hygiene, it includes regular professional cleaning twice a year, daily brushing at least two times per day, daily flossing, and yearly X-rays. These are necessary to keep the teeth healthy and detect possible cavity development in high-risk areas of the mouth.
Snacking on chewy and sticky foods (such as dried fruit or candy) is not recommended. These foods are best eaten as part of a meal rather than as a snack. Whenever possible, after eating these foods, properly brushing your teeth and rinsing with water are the best ways to prevent dental caries from developing. Additionally, constant sipping of sugary drinks or frequent sucking on candy and mints are also advised against.
Dental sealants can also prevent some cavities. Sealants are the thin plastic-like coatings applied to the chewing surfaces of the molars. This coating will prevent the accumulation of plaque in the deep grooves. Fluoride is often recommended to protect against dental caries.