You have probably known the word “cavity” since childhood. You were probably told by your parents to “brush your teeth!” to prevent cavities.
But what actually causes a cavity? And how can it be prevented?
You may be aware that cavities can develop if you do not have good oral hygiene, but let’s look at how cavities form and what happens if you don’t fill a cavity.
What Causes a Cavity?
Your mouth is home to lots of bacteria. Most of the bacteria are good and contribute to healthy teeth and gums, as well as good breath.
Bad bacteria forms when your mouth is exposed repeatedly to acid. This acid comes from sugary or acidic foods. You need to fight back against the acid buildup, or your teeth will begin to suffer.
As the bad bacteria grows and multiplies, a thin layer of buildup will form on your teeth. This is called plaque. The bacteria in the plaque will begin to cause tooth decay over time.
Your teeth have a protective layer called enamel. Plaque begins to eat away at the enamel of your teeth. The enamel will start to break down and expose your tooth’s inner layer, forming a cavity.
Over 90% of adults have at least one cavity develop on their permanent teeth at some point between the age of 20-64. The stage at which the cavity is identified greatly impacts the outcome.
What Are the Stages of a Cavity?
Cavity progression goes through several stages over time, starting with mild. However, an untreated cavity can have serious consequences.
1. Demineralization Begins
The first stage of a cavity is when the enamel of the tooth starts to weaken. You may have some white or dark spots on your tooth, or you may not be aware of the cavity at all. This is also called a “microcavity.”
At this point, the damage can be reversed. Regular visits to a dentist will identify any weaknesses, and fluoride treatments will remineralize your teeth. You can also make dietary changes to reduce the acid in your mouth.
2. Enamel Decay
At this point, the protective layer of enamel on your teeth has been damaged. You may begin to have some sensitivity in your affected tooth.
A dentist can apply a small filling to enamel decay to prevent further damage.
3. Dentin Decay
The enamel decay is extensive enough for bacteria to access the nerves and soft tissue inside your tooth. Tooth decay will occur more rapidly once it reaches the dentin.
If you begin to feel tooth pain, that is your tooth’s way of saying that you need to visit a dentist as soon as possible. Dentin decay may need a filling, or more extensive treatment, depending on the level of damage.
4. Pulp Decay
By the time a tooth reaches pulp decay, there will be lots of pain. The bacteria in your mouth can infect the pulp.
At this point, you have a really bad cavity and the damage is severe. A root canal is needed to treat pulp decay.
5. Abscess Develops
If bacteria infect the pulp, an abscess will form. This is a very serious infection, where a pus-filled pocket settles into the tooth. Severe pain will usually accompany an abscess.
An abscess is also treated with a root canal but may also need surgery or tooth extraction.
What Are Some Symptoms of a Cavity?
As you can see from the stages of a cavity, you will likely experience some symptoms indicating a problem with your teeth. These symptoms include:
- Tooth sensitivity
- Bad breath
- Pain when chewing
- Pain when eating or drinking something hot or cold
- Visible spots on the tooth
- Swelling or inflammation around the tooth
However, not all people experience the same symptoms at the same stages. In the early stages, you may not have any tooth pain or sensitivity.
By regularly visiting your dentist, you can be made aware that the decay has started. There are many opportunities to address the decay in the early stages before the cavity becomes a serious problem.
What Happens If You Don’t Fill a Cavity?
Let’s say you go in for an exam, and your dentist identifies tooth decay. Or you may have started to experience a mild toothache. You may wonder how quickly a cavity needs to be treated or if it can be left untreated.
As you can see from the stages, leaving a cavity untreated can lead to serious complications. At the stage where an abscess forms, the infection could be serious and potentially fatal.
Regarding the timing around treating a cavity, the answer is: the sooner, the better. Tooth decay can occur rapidly once the bacteria begin to move past the enamel’s initial protective layer.
Tooth decay could unexpectedly spread. You risk infection by leaving a cavity untreated.
The more advanced the cavity, the more invasive the treatment will be. Catching a cavity early will save time, money, and pain. It is far better to treat a cavity when it is still a relatively small problem.
Best Prevention For a Cavity
Of course, the best treatment for a cavity is prevention. There are many things you can do to prevent cavities, including:
- Brushing your teeth twice per day with fluoride toothpaste
- Flossing to clean in between your teeth
- Using a mouth rinse that contains fluoride
- Considering dental sealants to protect enamel
- Drinking tap water, which contains fluoride in most public water supplies
- Watching what you eat and avoiding sugary foods
- Getting periodic fluoride treatments
- Visiting your dentist regularly
If you implement some of these prevention tips you could be in for potentially far fewer cavities.
Visit Your Dentist!
Not that you know how a cavity forms, and what happens if you don’t fill a cavity, you can take the preventative steps needed.
By visiting your dentist regularly, you can have your teeth cleaned to remove plaque and exams to identify early tooth decay. Your can also treat any other problems you may be experiencing.