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Dental decay

Dental decay is a condition that occurs when the dentine and enamel of a tooth get softened by an acid attack after eating or drinking anything that contains sugar. Over time, the acid creates a hole or cavity in the tooth. Dental decay is also known as tooth decay and dental caries.

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What can cause dental decay?

Dental decay results from plaque acid that gradually erode the enamel and dentine. Dental decay damages the teeth and may cause the tooth to need filling or removal.

What is enamel?

The enamel is the hard outer layer of the tooth. It protects the tooth and is the hardest body part. The enamel doesn't contain blood vessels or nerves and isn't sensitive to pain.

What is dentine?

The dentine is directly under the enamel and makes up most of the tooth. It covers the central part of the tooth, called the pulp, and is sensitive to pain.

What is the pulp?

The pulp is the soft tissue that houses the nerves and blood vessels in the tooth and the middle of a tooth.

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What is plaque?

Plaque is a thin, sticky film containing bacteria that continuously forms on the teeth.

Why do I experience tooth decay?

Tooth decay occurs when sugar in drinks and foods reacts with bacteria in plaque which forms acids. Whenever you drink or eat anything containing sugar, the acid produced attaches to the teeth, softening and eroding the enamel.

The acid attack can last for one hour after eating or drinking before the natural salts in the saliva remineralise the enamel and harden it. Other things besides sugar are harmful to your teeth, such as other carbohydrate foods and drinks. They are known as fermentable carbohydrates, for example, the sugars in processed food and natural sugars in cooled starches and fruit.

Ensure you check the ingredients in any food you want to eat. Generally, any name with "ose" is sugar—for example, maltose and sucrose.

Taking sugar drinks and snacks between meals can increase your risk of tooth decay because your teeth will be under constant acid attacks without recovery time. This makes avoiding constant snacking or sipping sugary drinks throughout the day necessary.

What are the signs of tooth decay?

The early stages of tooth decay show no symptoms, but your dental care provider can identify a cavity in the early stages during your teeth examination or x-ray. Regular dental visits are important because small cavities are easier to treat than advanced dental decay.

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What happens if I have a dental cavity?

When a cavity gets to the dentine, your tooth will become sensitive, especially when you have sweet drinks and foods and hot or acidic foods. As the decay progresses to near the dental pulp, you may experience a toothache.

If the toothache results from sweet or hot foods, the ache may last only a few seconds. As the decay gets close to the pulp, the pain may occur for a longer time and need painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol.

Ensure you visit your dentist immediately, as these signs indicate your tooth is dying, and you may develop a dental abscess if left untreated.

What happens if treatment isn't early?

A toothache always requires your dentist's attention because it may be a sign that something is wrong. If left untreated, the underlying issue may become worse, leading to tooth loss that would have been avoided.

What parts of my teeth are more likely to decay?

 The surfaces between your teeth and the biting surfaces are most likely to decay. This is because plaque and food can get stuck in these areas, but any part of y our teeth can also decay.

What are my treatment options?

If your tooth decay is mild, the dental care provider will remove all decay and fill the tooth. If the nerves in the middle of the tooth are damaged, the dentist may need to perform a root canal treatment by removing the nerve and repairing the tooth with a crown or filling.  

If the tooth is damaged beyond repair, the dentist may need to remove the tooth.

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Is a filling always necessary?

No, it isn't. In the early stages of dental decay, your dentist may apply a fluoride varnish on the area. This can stop further decay and aid remineralisation of the tooth. However, ensure you follow the recommended teeth cleaning routine, using fluoride toothpaste to prevent recurring tooth decay.

What can I do to protect my teeth from decay?

As the adult molars or back teeth come in free from decay, your dentist can use a pit and fissure sealant to protect the tooth. This sealant is a plastic coating used to fill all the small areas in the surface of the tooth to create a flat surface that makes cleaning easier.

This treatment is also available to adults who aren't experiencing tooth decay. Your dentist will discuss if this is the most suitable treatment for you. The dentist can paint fluoride varnishes on the teeth twice a year to reduce the risk of decay for children.

How can I prevent decay?

You can prevent dental decay by brushing your teeth thoroughly before bed and at least once during the day with fluoride toothpaste. Ensure you always brush your biting, inner and outer teeth surface.

You can also use dental tape, floss or interdental brushes to remove food and plaque from between your teeth and where your teeth and gums meet, as your toothbrush can't reach these areas.

What else can I do?

Visit your dental professional regularly, as recommended. Reduce your intake of acidic and sugary drinks and food. Also, avoid snacking between meals to reduce the number of times your teeth are under acid attacks.

You can chew sugar-free gum for up to 20 minutes after eating to help your mouth produce more saliva to neutralise the acid.

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How can my hygienist and dentist help prevent decay?

Your dental professionals will show you the areas that require extra care when cleaning your mouth. They will also show you how to brush and clean in between your teeth using floss or interdental brushes.

If you are experiencing dental decay, visit McKennell Dental Practice to see a dentist. You can also call us on 020 7834 8802 to schedule an appointment for your dental check-up.