Everybody wants an attractive smile. While beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, certain constants define our ideals in dental excellence; white, even teeth with little crowding and minimal gaps.
More important than cosmetic perfection, though, is good dental health and hygiene. Most of us want our teeth to last a lifetime — and they can — but there’s a major threat which may be undermining that ambition without our even being aware of it: cavities. Cavities by far outstrip any other complaint in prompting unscheduled visits to the dentist, and affect around 90 percent of the population at one time or another.
It’s definitely worth taking a little time to understand them, and what can be done to avoid them.
What Exactly Are Cavities?
The human tooth has four strata. Heading inward from the outer surface, these are:
• Enamel, the visible, semitranslucent surface of the tooth
• Dentin, less strong than enamel
• Pulp, soft connective tissue forming the central part of the tooth
• Cementum, a bone-like substance to which periodontal ligaments can attach, giving the
Cavities — technically called “caries” — are perforations which occur in the two outer strata; the enamel and the dentin. The pulp is living tissue, comprising blood vessels and nerves, so holes cannot develop there. Pulp, however, can die, an eventuality that’s dealt with below.
Small cavities in the enamel seldom cause pain, so usually go unnoticed. This is a primary reason why regular and frequent dental checkups are vital. Untended, cavities enlarge to the point where they trap particles of food, which in turn cultivates bacterial toxins.
The hole then enlarges, progressing into the dentin. Because of dentin’s comparative softness, it decays much more speedily than does the enamel which should protect it. Without proper treatment, severe cavities can develop with surprising swiftness.
Causes and Process
Many types of harmless and helpful bacteria live in the mouth. Unfortunately, cavity-causing bacteria are also present, and it isn’t possible to eradicate the latter without detriment the former.
Cavity-causing bacteria consume simple sugars, delivered to them in our food and drinks, which are then converted into acid plaque by the bacteria’s digestive processes. The resultant cocktail then weakens the otherwise hard enamel, after which the exposed dentin also loses integrity. Saliva dissolves the softened layers, and a hole forms.
This is the cavity.
As noted, tiny surface cavities usually go unnoticed. Without professional attention, they gradually enlarge to the point where a potion of the enamel is entirely perforated, after which the progress of cavity enlargement accelerates. Bad breath and foul tastes are common symptoms.
The hole is called a carious lesion in medical parlance, but is often simply referred to as tooth decay. It eventually reaches the living tissue inside the tooth; the pulp. Exposed to external shock, the nerves then experience sensations from which they should be protected, which can be at any level from mild discomfort to agonizing pain.
The most common cause of unpleasant sensation is an intolerable sensitivity to foods and drinks that are:
Without treatment, the pulp tissue will eventually die. Subsequent infection is commonplace, and, in highly progressed cases, that infection can contaminate surrounding soft tissue. Unchecked, some complications can even be life-threatening.
Unless attended to by a dentist, most commonly with a simple filling if caught in time, continued erosion and eventual infection can lead to tooth abscesses.
Once that far progressed, the condition typically requires either a root canal procedure, or the extraction of the entire tooth.
Prevention, as the cliché would suggest, is better than cure. Good oral hygiene is key to inhibiting the initial development of cavities in the enamel. Proper, regular brushing and daily flossing minimizes formation of the dental biofilm — plaque — which harbors and comprises the harmful bacteria.
Further, carbohydrates — from foods like cakes, candy and soda — can be left on teeth, where they fuel acid demineralization, while trapped food can prevent saliva from diluting those carbohydrates. While the use of a good mouthwash can also be beneficial, only professional hygiene care can truly ensure cavities don’t develop, or are arrested before they cause major problems.
Regular dental examinations, coupled with professional cleaning, ensure plaque is periodically, completely removed. Visits to dentists may also involve preventative care, such as radiographs taken in order to detect possible cavity development.
The offices of James J. McCall, DDS, PA, located in Jacksonville, Florida, serve all of metropolitan Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and St. Augustine. Specializing in both general and cosmetic dental care, Dr. McCall and his staff offer a comprehensive service that starts with examinations and cleanings, includes remedial work and extends to root canals and extractions.
Contact Dr. McCall’s office to arrange an initial consultation, or to ask for more information on dental cavities and good oral hygiene practices.