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Cavities: Where Do They Come From?

When you stop and think about it, it's surprising how much goes on in our mouths without our knowledge.

Why Do I Have Cavities?

A few posts back we talked about plaque, that sticky film that's on your teeth all the time, ready at a moment's notice to cause a variety of oral issues. Plaque commonly hangs around the gum line, in between the teeth, and in any depressions in the tooth into which it can easily settle.

Any plaque that isn't banished by your toothbrush or washed away with saliva has bacteria that feed on sugar in your mouth, which produces acid.

An Ongoing Cycle of Decay

This acid attacks the enamel, which is the hard layer on the outside of the tooth that protects it. Enamel contains mineral salts, like calcium, and acid can break them down.

The acid creates tiny holes, called micro cavities, which essentially make the surface of the teeth porous and don't require fillings. But when one of the holes gets big enough, we find ourselves with a cavity.

girl getting dental procedure

Since there are no nerve fibers in enamel, we unfortunately don't get any warning signs when the acid is eating away at our teeth. However, once a cavity has formed and the acid can get to the dentin under the tooth's surface, the nerves send us the pain message.

Ouch! But by then it's too late.

Misaligned and crooked teeth are more prone to cavities because it's harder to keep these teeth free of plaque.

Cavities Aren't Just for Children

Cavities are most common in kids who may not practice good oral health or get enough fluoride, but they are also seen in adults when changes associated with aging come about. Sometimes the gums recede as we get older, causing the tooth's roots to be exposed to plaque.

Tooth roots aren't covered with enamel, so without that first line of defense it's easier for the plaque to make inroads and for the cycle to begin.

How Do Fillings Fit In?

Another potential cause for adult cavities are decades-old fillings. These fillings have been through countless years of hard-core chewing, and it's not uncommon for the teeth to start to crack around them or for the fillings to become leaky. If bacteria can find a way in to even the smallest crevice, the decay will begin.

Usually, when you get a filling the dentist will anesthetize the area so you can't feel anything. Then a tiny drill is used to remove the decayed portion of your tooth, and the resulting hole is filled with some kind of composite resin. You may need a crown, which covers a larger surface, if there isn't enough healthy tooth left with which to work.

The best solution to avoid cavities -- and the fillings that follow them! -- is to cut back on sugary drinks and snacks, brush twice a day, and make flossing your friend.

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