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Can you stop a cavity from getting worse?

Left unchecked, a little cavity can do a lot of damage.
Left unchecked, a little cavity can do a lot of damage.
©iStockphoto.com/kgfoto

A cavity usually starts long before it's identified in the dentist's office. In fact, you can probably trace its origins back to the moment you started neglecting your teeth. When you don't take care of your teeth with regular brushing and flossing, the sugars and food particles that are left in your mouth break down and provide nourishment for the bacteria that are always present there. Those bacteria subsequently experience a population boom, and that's where the road to a cavity begins.

There are about 100 types of bacteria in your mouth, but the problematic ones are Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacilli [source: Colgate].While other oral bacteria can be useful, Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacilli convert refined sugar and carbohydrates into acids that eat away at tooth enamel.

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As bacteria multiply, they interact with food particles or sugars that are left on a tooth, causing the latter to become acidic. This contributes to the breakdown of that tooth's enamel.

As the enamel wears away (a process that can take anywhere from months to years), a hole develops, and this is the start of your cavity [source: Korwin]. At that point, you'll probably start paying a little more attention to your mouth, but for all the wrong reasons. The effected tooth will become sensitive to touch, as well as to heat and cold. It may hurt when you bite down. Pus may even begin to form around it.

Left unchecked, a cavity will get worse and eventually destroy the entire tooth. Once decay penetrates the enamel, it attacks the dentin, the second layer of the tooth that surrounds the pulp and has nerve networks woven throughout it. Then it exposes the pulp, which is connective tissue riddled with blood vessels at the core of the tooth. Once the pulp decays, you're on the road to tooth loss. Everyone around you may also find that your breath is pretty fierce.

Ideally, though, you wouldn't let a cavity get to this point -- you'd see a dentist and take measures to prevent tooth loss. In that sense, you can stop a cavity from getting worse. However, some sources may suggest that you can treat a cavity through re-mineralization without a dentist's intervention. Find out if there's any truth to this on the next page.

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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.

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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.

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Sources

  • American Dental Hygienists' Association. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Sept. 25, 2011) http://www.adha.org/faqs/index.html
  • Colgate. "All About Cavities." March 22, 2009. (Sept. 25, 2011) http://www.colgate.com/app/CP/US/EN/OC/Information/Articles/Oral-and-Dental-Health-Basics/Common-Concerns/Cavities-Tooth-Decay/article/All-About-Cavities.cvsp
  • Discovery News. "Tooth Regeneration Gel Could Replace Painful Fillings." June 28, 2010. (Sept. 25, 2011) http://news.discovery.com/tech/tooth-regeneration-gel.html
  • Korwin, Robert, D.D.S. "How long does it take for a cavity to hurt?" (Oct. 6, 2011) http://www.drkorwin.com/blog/how-long-does-it-take-for-a-cavity-to-hurt
  • Mayo Clinic. "Cavities/tooth decay." April 28, 2011. (Sept. 25, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cavities/DS00896
  • University of Rochester Medical Center. "No Tooth Brush, No Cavities? Cavity-causing Bacteria May Be Made To Self-destruct." January 2008. (Sept. 25, 2011) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080102122300.htm

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