Putting the Brakes on Tooth Decay

You learned on the previous page that the first stage of a cavity is an acidic assault on the calcium and phosphate crystals that make up the outer layer of a tooth. The compromised enamel may form a white spot on the tooth's surface. At this point, you may turn to fluoride to help you avoid a dentist's drill.

Dentists often tout the benefits of fluoride in preventing cavities, but what can it do once tooth decay has already begun? Well, fluoride penetrates teeth, replacing minerals in the teeth that have been lost to decay. If all you have is a "trouble spot" on your enamel, remineralization can keep it from getting worse. Once the enamel has been penetrated, however, it's too late: Fluoride strengthens existing enamel, but can't replace it. It won't reverse a cavity that has started.

Once a hole has completely formed in the enamel, the only thing you can do to stop a cavity from getting worse is see a dentist and have it filled. During this process, the dentist will first numb your mouth, drill through the enamel and clean out the decay. Then, he or she will prepare the space for a filling by shaping it and lining it with zinc oxide, composite resin or other materials. Finally, the dentist will place the filling and bond it to the tooth. Fillings typically need replacing after about a dozen years, but in the meantime, this should help you prevent tooth loss due to the cavity.

Alternative options may also be on the horizon. Researchers discovered that a new peptide -- MSH, or melanocyte-stimulating hormone -- when produced in gel form and placed next to a cavity, can prompt regeneration of a decayed tooth's cells. This provides a natural "filling" for a cavity, even when it's in an advanced state [source: Discovery News]. But don't cancel your appointment to get a filling just yet. It may be years before enough testing has been done to make MSH available to anyone but lab rats.

To prevent cavities, brush after meals, limit your sugary treats, floss daily and get regular dental checkups. You can't turn back the clock and reverse a cavity, but you can save yourself a lot of additional trouble, not to mention your teeth, by making sure one never forms in the first place.

For lots more information about cavities and oral care, check out the links on the next page.