What Are Cavities? Preventing Adult Tooth Decay

When it comes to oral health, we hear the word “cavity” all the time. In general, the word cavity means a pit or hole. While that definition somewhat holds for tooth health, there’s a little more to dental cavities than a simple hole.

According to the American Dental Association, dental cavities (or caries, as they are called by dental professionals) are synonymous with tooth decay. A cavity can be anything from a small decay-containing pit in a tooth to a tooth that needs serious work.

Tooth decay is a destruction of the tooth enamel – the covering of the tooth. Once bacteria has penetrated this outer layer, the inner layers of the tooth, including the dentin, pulp and sometimes even the root. Decay is generally caused by the way we treat our teeth (whether we have excellent oral care habits, brushing for 2-3 minutes twice daily, and flossing once daily) and the foods we eat. Eating carbohydrates leaves a feast on the teeth for the microscopic bacteria that live on our teeth. When the harmful bacteria munch on the bacteria, they produce acids that destroy the enamel, exposing the tooth to decay.

Minor cavities are simply cleaned out and filled with either an amalgam filling or a composite filling. Amalgam fillings are the traditional silver fillings that many of us have lingering from childhood. Composite fillings are more popular these days, as dental professionals are able to match the color of the filling to the teeth around it.

Tooth decay left untreated can lead to a destruction of so much of the tooth that a root canal is required.

Tooth Decay? Isn’t That Just Kid Stuff?

Actually, the majority of adults find that at sometime in their adulthood, they’ll be sitting through a routine dental cleaning and hear the dreaded words, you have a cavity.

If that’s you, don’t worry too much. Cavities in adults are common for those who didn’t have regular dental cleanings throughout childhood, and those whose water was not fluoridated.

Also, according to the American Dental Association, many adults experience mild decay around the perimeters of cavities filled during childhood. Over the years, amalgam fillings can weaken and fracture, or even leak around the edges. When fillings leak around the edges, decay-causing bacteria can slip between the teeth and fillings, causing further decay to a tooth that was treated long ago. Many dentists recommend getting fillings from childhood replaced when patients are in their late 30s to early 40s, depending on the quality of the original filling.

Preventing Adult Tooth Decay

There are many things that can be done to help prevent tooth decay – in both children and adults. Brushing and flossing are key. Most people don’t take flossing seriously, but it is key to removing bacteria and debris between teeth.

In addition to good routine oral care, addressing the balance of oral bacteria is a great way to support tooth health. Oral care probiotics can support the colonies of beneficial bacteria that naturally thrive in the mouth, which can help crowd out the harmful bacteria.

While tooth decay is common in both children and adults, good oral care is the best form of prevention. A few minutes of brushing at least twice daily and flossing daily can go a long way toward keeping your teeth cavity-free.


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