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Health Information

Dental and Oral Health

Tooth Decay (Caries or Cavities)

What is tooth decay (caries or cavities)?

Tooth decay is the disease known as caries or cavities - a highly preventable disease caused by many factors.

Who is at risk for tooth decay?

We all host bacteria in our mouths which makes everyone a potential target for cavities. Risk factors that put a person at a higher risk for tooth decay include:

  • diets high in sweets, carbohydrates, and sugars
  • water supplies with limited or no fluoridation
  • age (children and senior citizens are at an increased risk for tooth decay)

What are the symptoms of tooth decay and dental caries?

The following are the most common symptoms of tooth decay and dental caries. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include white spots on the teeth that appear first. Then, an early cavity appears that has a light brown color on the tooth. The tooth color progressively becomes darker.

How are dental caries diagnosed?

Dental caries are usually diagnosed based on a complete history and physical examination of your child. This may be performed by your child's physician or your child's dentist.

Preventing tooth decay:

Preventing tooth decay and cavities involves five simple steps:

  1. Brush your child's teeth, tongue, and gums twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste, or supervise them brushing their teeth.
  2. Floss your child's teeth daily after the age of two.
  3. Make sure your child eats a well-balanced diet and limit or eliminate sugary snacks.
  4. Consult your child's physician or dentist regarding the supplemental use of fluoride and/or dental sealants to protect your child's teeth against plaque.
  5. Schedule routine (every six months) dental cleanings and examinations for your child.

Treatment for tooth decay:

Specific treatment for tooth decay will be determined by your child's physician or dentist based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment, in most cases, requires removing the caries and replacing the lost substance of the tooth with a filling.

What are fillings?

Teeth that have been affected by tooth decay (caries or cavities) require a filling. Advances in dental materials and techniques provide new, effective ways to restore teeth.

There are several different types of restorations, including:

  • direct restorations - require a single visit to place a filling directly into a prepared cavity. Materials used for these filings include dental amalgam, also known as silver fillings; glass ionomers; resin ionomers; and some composite (resin) fillings.

Amalgam fillings have been used for decades, and have been tested for safety and resistance to wear. Dentists have found amalgams to be safe, reliable, and effective for restorations.

Glass ionomers are tooth-colored materials made from fine glass powders and acrylic acids. These are used in small fillings that do not have to withstand heavy pressure from chewing. Resin ionomers are made from glass with acrylic acids and acrylic resin.

  • indirect restorations - require two or more visits and include inlays, onlays, veneers, crowns, and bridges. These are constructed with gold, base metal alloys, ceramics, or composites. At the first visit, a dentist will prepare the tooth and make an impression of the area that will be restored. At the second visit, the dentist will place the new restoration into the prepared area.

For an indirect restoration, a dentist may use an all-porcelain, or ceramic, application. This material looks like natural tooth enamel in color and translucency. Another type of indirect restoration may use the porcelain that is fused to metal, which provides additional strength. Gold alloys are used often for crowns or inlays and onlays. Base metal alloys are used in crowns and are resistant to corrosion and fracture. Indirect composites are similar to those used for fillings and are tooth-colored, but they are not as strong as porcelain or metal restorations.

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