Cavity & Tooth Decay : Symptoms, Causes & Treatment


Tooth Decay

People think only children get tooth decay, but all of us including adults are at a risk our whole lives. The good news is that the decay can be prevented. By making smart food choices & following healthy oral care routine, one can lower his/her risk for tooth decay.

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay is a disease caused by micro-organisms in our mouth that damages and breaks down our natural teeth. A tooth has 3 layers, a hard outer layer (enamel), a middle layer (dentin) and a centre portion (pulp). The more number of layers get affected by decay, the worse the damage is.

Diagram of a Healthy Tooth


If tooth decay is left untreated, it can lead to severe pain due to the spread of infection, even loss of teeth leading to loss of self-confidence. People suffering with tooth pain often cannot sleep or eat properly and are at a risk to miss days of school or work. Tooth decay is not just painful, it is unhealthy and also looks bad.

Some times an abscess (pus-filled sac) can be caused by a cavity, which in turn can cause serious infections when not properly treated. It is more affordable to prevent tooth decay than to replace or repair a decayed tooth.

What causes tooth decay?

Our teeth are covered by a sticky bacteria called plaque . After any meal, this bacteria turns the sugars in foods or drinks into acid. It is this acid that attacks the tooth enamel and destroys it.

When you have sugary drinks or foods many times in a day, or if you sip on the same sugary drink for a long period of time, the acid attacks your tooth enamel again & again. The acid eats away the tooth enamel and starts causing decay. A hole formed because of this process is called a cavity.

Who gets tooth decay?

People of all ages can get tooth decay. The risk may increase if one:

  • often snacks and sips on sugary drinks or foods.

  • don't brush twice daily with a toothpaste

  • has a dry mouth from medicines or other reasons

  • has a weak enamel due to genetics or childhood illness

Can tooth decay be prevented?

Yes, it can be easily prevented. Here’s how:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste (avoid if your local water supply is high in fluoride already).

  • Avoid frequent sipping and snacking on sugary drinks and food

  • Ask your dentist if dental sealants are right for you or your children.

  • Visit your dentist regularly for an examination and a professional teeth cleaning.

Your saliva also helps to prevent tooth decay. It reduces the acid damage to a tooth by washing away sugary,sticky foods. Saliva also makes the acid weaker. Chewing sugarless gum after eating can increase saliva flow in mouth & help rinse away acids & sugars. The minerals in saliva also helps repair the enamel of tooth.

Common places where decay forms

Tooth decay often occurs between the teeth and in the inner grooves of the back teeth(molars), where bits of food get collected. Back teeth are harder to clean because they are not as easy to reach. Also, toothbrush bristles cannot get into the grooves. Decay also can form at the root of the tooth & go below the gum-line.


A toothbrush bristle looks thin, but the grooves in our tooth are even smaller for them to reach there and clean.

How is Tooth Decay treated?

Treatment of tooth decay depends on how early it gets detected.If detected before cavities are formed, fluoride treatments may solve the problem. If you have a tooth cavity, you’ll need a composite filling.

A large cavity may need an ceramic Inlay / Onlay to replace the decayed part of the tooth.

If the centre of your tooth (pulp) is infected, root canal treatment may be your last chance to save the tooth.

Finally, a badly damaged tooth might have to be extracted & replaced. Replacement options are Bridges, Dental Implants with crown or Bridge, Dental Implants with fixed or removable dentures, etc. The right option for you will be explained by the dentist only.