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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 2.
  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 condition
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • 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. There are many different types of fillings, including:

  • dental amalgams
    Dental amalgams, also known as silver fillings, are comprised of a mixture of mercury (45 to 50 percent), and an alloy of silver, tin, and copper (50 to 55 percent). When combined with other materials in a dental amalgam, mercury's chemical nature changes. Recently, controversial views have emerged regarding mercury in dental amalgams. Some dentists feel strongly that existing mercury amalgams should be removed and replaced with substitutes. Other dentists feel there is no harm from mercury amalgams. Consult your child's dentist for further information on this topic.
  • composite resins
    Also known as white fillings, a composite resin is a tooth-colored plastic mixture filled with glass (silicon dioxide) that is used primarily for cosmetic improvements of the smile by changing the color of the teeth or reshaping disfigured teeth.

Other alternatives to restoring damaged or decayed teeth:

  • porcelain veneers - a ceramic material is bonded to the front of teeth to change the tooth's color, size, and/or shape.
  • crown - a "cap" that covers a cracked or broken tooth, unfixed by a filling, to approximate its normal size and shape.
  • cast gold restorations - this type of restoration is often more costly and may require more than one dental fitting.

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