The effects of tooth decay and the importance of early detection

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What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay is a preventable disease caused by a combination of plaque, sugar consumption and poor oral hygiene. The bacteria living in plaque turn the sugar in the food and drinks we consume into acid. This acid damages the enamel layer of our teeth creating a cavity with repeated acid attacks. The more often we consume sugar, the more frequently our teeth will be under attack.

Stages of tooth decay

Decay in its very early stages can be reversed. Early decay presents on teeth as bright white spots called white spot lesions. Reversal of decay is possible through remineralisation, a process by which acid damage is halted and minerals previously lost from the teeth are replaced.

Our saliva contains minerals which is nature’s way of protecting our teeth by way of remineralisation. Your dentist may recommend fluoride or another product to prevent decay and/or help with the process of remineralisation.

Tooth enamel contains no living cells which is why the early stages of decay are painless. For this reason you will most likely be unaware you have early decay without your dentist detecting it.

Once the decay has progressed through the enamel surface it’s reached the dentine and has now created a cavity which requires a filling. The dentine layer contains small tubules which connect to the nerve of your tooth. These tubules allow heat, cold, acidic or sweat foods to stimulate the nerves and cells inside the tooth, causing sensitivity. Dentine isn’t as hard as enamel therefore decay will progress quite quickly. The soft tissue below the dentine is called the pulp. As decay advances to the pulp, your tooth will begin to ache.

If the pulp tissue gets infected with bacteria, it will kill the blood vessels and nerves in the tooth. At this stage your tooth will require root canal treatment to be saved.

Importance of early detection

Attending regularly for routine dental visits will identify decay in the early stages and prevent it from progressing into a large cavity. Every 2 – 3 years your dentist may recommend x-rays as part of your oral examination. These x-rays show early signs of decay between your molar teeth and under any restorations you may have. Area’s your dentist simply can’t see by looking in your mouth.

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