Many know that when they have cavities or tooth decay, they just have a hole in a tooth. However, they are not aware that these holes are grounds for bacterial growth and proliferation.

The mouth is full of bacteria and hundreds of types thrive on the gums, tongue, and teeth. Some of these bacteria are good and helpful, but others can harm the person and may play roles in the tooth decay process.

Tooth decay or cavities are the second-most common health disorder in the United States next to common colds, the National Institute of Health reports. Usually, cavities occur in the teeth of children and young adults, but all age groups are susceptible.

What happens when someone has tooth decay? Bacteria are normally found in the mouth. These bacteria are important in digestion. They change foods like sugar and starch into acids. When the food people eat, acid, saliva and bacteria mix, they form plaque,
a substance that sticks to the teeth.

When plaque is not removed regularly, it turns into tartar, which may eventually lead to gum disease. Moreover, the acids in plaque can damage the protective covering of the teeth called enamel. This may affect the nerves, leading to tooth ache.

If the cavities are not treated immediately, they can become bigger and affect the deeper layers of the teeth. In the long run, this may lead to infection and tooth loss.
Hence, regular brushing, flossing, and dental visits are advised.


The early stages of the disease may have no signs and symptoms. However, in later stages, when the decay has eaten through the enamel, the teeth may be sensitive to cold, hot or sweet foods and drinks.

The signs and symptoms of dental cavities depend on the extent and location of the decay. The common signs and symptoms include:

  • A toothache, continuous and spontaneous pain that happens without any apparent cause
  • Holes on the tooth
  • Brown, black or white stains on the tooth surface
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Mild to sharp pain when drinking or eating something sweet, hot or cold.
  • Pain when you bite down


Tooth decay or dental cavities refer to the damage that happens when bacteria in the mouth create acids that eat away the tooth’s enamel or protective covering.
This may lead to a hole in the tooth.

The tooth has three layers – the hard outer layer called enamel, the middle layer called dentin and the center of the tooth dubbed as the pulp. The pulp contains the blood vessels and the nerves.

When the infection or hole reaches the pulp, this may lead to severe symptoms of pain and sensitivity.

How does tooth decay forms?

Formation of plaque

When a person eats a lot of sugary foods and drinks colas or sodas, the bacteria combine with these. They form plaque, a sticky substance that coats the teeth. When you do not regularly brush your teeth, the sugars and starches are quickly eaten by bacteria and form plaque. When the plaque hardens on the teeth, it forms tartar or calculus.

The acid in plaques attacks the enamel

The acids in plaque remove the minerals in the enamel, the protective layer of the tooth. The erosion leads to the formation of holes in the enamel. As the hole digs deeper into the tooth, the more severe the symptoms are. When the bacteria reach the pulp, this may lead to infection, tooth loss and pain.

4Risk Factors

Some factors may increase the risk of developing dental caries or tooth decay.

Location of the tooth

The location of the tooth may affect one’s risk of developing dental cavities.
Decay often occurs in the premolars and molars. This is because they have pits, crannies, and grooves where food particles and plaque may stick to.

Sugary drinks and foods

Food that is sweet is ideal for bacterial growth and proliferation. Also, some foods may stick to the teeth for a long time like ice cream, honey, milk, and soda.

Bottle Feeding at night

Infants who sleep while drinking milk from a bottle may have a higher risk of having tooth decay. The milk will remain on the teeth for hours, causing bacterial growth.

Frequent snacking

People who love snacking or drinking foods, especially sweets may have a mouth full of bacteria that can produce acids to attack the tooth enamel. The bacteria have a constant supply of food and fuel through sugars and starchy foods.

Poor dental hygiene

People who do not brush their teeth after meals or those who do not floss regularly are at a higher risk of having dental caries.

Lack of fluoride

fluoride is a mineral that helps prevent cavities. Usually, this is found in toothpaste and other dental products.

Young children and older adults

Young kids do not practice proper dental hygiene because they are not capable of doing it yet. As parents, it is your responsibility to teach your kids about brushing their teeth and flossing regularly. Older adults are at risk too because as they age, their teeth can wear down, making it prone to root problems and decay.

Heartburn or Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

People with GERD may have their stomach acids flowing into the mouth. The acids may affect the teeth enamel, leading to breakdown and cavities.

Dry mouth

The saliva washes away food and harmful sugars inside the mouth. If you have dry mouth, the tendency is, plaque substances attach to your teeth for a long time.

Other risk factors

The other risk factors include having diabetes, smoking, and breathing secondhand smoke.


Dental cavities are so common that people may not take them seriously. However, when they are left untreated, they may lead to serious complications including:

Gum Disease

Gum disease, also known as gingivitis, can cause swollen and bleeding gums. Another gum disease linked to dental caries is periodontitis, a more serious form of gum disease that can affect not only the gums but also the tissue that connects the tooth to the socket and the bone in the jaw.

Dental abscesses

In some cases, when the tooth decay is in its advanced stages, the bacteria can cause a pus-filled inflammation in the mouth. A dental abscess can lead to severe pain, fever and other signs of infection. This may also lead to more serious infections in the body.

Other complications

Tooth decay that’s left untreated may lead to pain, swelling around the tooth, damaged tooth, problems with chewing and weight loss or nutrition problems.


A dentist should be able to detect tooth decay upon an initial checkup. First, the dentist will examine the mouth and by just looking at the teeth, he may determine which have cavities. In some cases, he might even request for an X-ray (panoramic) to determine the severity and extent of the tooth decay.


Regular dental consultations are important to determine cavities and other dental conditions. Detecting and treating dental cavities early may help save your tooth. The sooner a person seeks care, the better the chances of reversing the tooth decay and preventing its progression.

Treatments include:

Fluoride treatments

Fluoride is the most effective treatment available for the prevention of the spread of tooth decay. Fluoride is a naturally-occurring mineral that helps protect the teeth from decay. Synthetic fluoride can be found in toothpaste.

Dental fillings

Dental fillings or restorations are used by dentists to fill up the holes in the teeth. This will prevent the decay to progress beyond the earliest stage.


Dental crowns are used to treat teeth that have been extensively ruined and damaged. The decayed part of the tooth is drilled away and a crown is placed to form the tooth.

Root canal treatment

A root canal is done to save a tooth that has been damaged and the pulp has been exposed. When the nerves in the pulp are exposed, they trigger severe pain and sensations. The diseased pulp is removed during a root canal treatment and a dental filling is placed.

Tooth extraction

In more serious cases that the tooth can’t be saved anymore, the dentist will extract the diseased tooth. Losing a tooth may affect the function and shape of surrounding teeth.


Tooth decay or dental cavities are preventable through:

Oral hygiene

 Practice good oral hygiene by brushing your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Also, brush your teeth immediately after eating sweets and other foods that can damage the enamel.


Flossing your teeth is important because it removes the plaque and other food particles stuck in between the teeth. Flossing daily is important.

Eat a healthy diet and refrain from sugary foods and drink

Avoid eating or drinking foods that are high in fermented carbohydrates and sugar like cakes, coffee, fizzy drinks, biscuits, and white bread.

Visit the dentist regularly

The only way to manage tooth decay is to make sure they’re treated early on. Regular dental visits are important for the dentist to detect dental cavities and treat them promptly. This will prevent further tooth damage and certain complications.