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What Causes Tooth Decay and Erosion?

causes of tooth decay

When teeth are damaged or worn down, this can make them feel painful and sensitive. The more tooth enamel is lost, the more vulnerable a tooth will be to infections. If this isn't treated in time, it can sometimes lead to tooth loss.

Knowing what causes tooth decay and erosion and how to spot the possible signs will lower your risks and help to keep your teeth healthy. If your teeth are already damaged or worn, your dentist can discuss treatment options for restoring their strength and appearance.

What causes tooth decay?

Tooth decay (dental caries) is caused by acids released by bacteria in the mouth. If you don't follow good oral hygiene or you're not producing enough saliva, these bacteria can build up on the teeth and form a sticky layer called plaque.

When you consume food and drink containing sugars and carbohydrates, bacteria in plaque also feed on these for energy and release acids as a waste product. These acid attacks wear down tooth enamel, causing mineral loss and forming cavities. This exposes the softer layers beneath the enamel.

Tooth decay can affect people of all ages, but young children are at the highest risk as their teeth are thinner and softer than adult teeth.

Stages of tooth decay

If tooth decay is caught early, it can usually be treated before it causes any serious damage to teeth. In its early stage, tooth decay gradually wears down the hard outer surface of teeth (enamel). It can often be noticed as white spots on teeth close to the gum line.

Decay that's left untreated can form cavities that expose the softer yellow layer beneath the enamel (dentine). Deeper cavities can expose the soft tissues in the centre of the tooth (pulp), leading to toothache, infections and eventually tooth loss.

Teeth with more advanced decay may look yellow, brown or black. While decay may still be treated by improving your oral hygiene, teeth that are already damaged will need to be repaired.

What are the signs of tooth decay?

You might have tooth decay if you have some of the following symptoms:

  • toothache or pain when biting
  • teeth feel more sensitive to hot or cold food and drinks
  • white, brown or black spots on teeth
  • cavities in teeth

It's possible to have tooth decay without any obvious signs, so it's important to keep up with your scheduled dental appointments. By examining your mouth closely, your dentist can detect tooth decay early before it has the chance to cause damage.

What causes tooth erosion?

Tooth erosion is similar to tooth decay, but rather than being caused by bacteria, teeth surfaces are worn down and weakened by acids in food and drink or stomach acids. Prolonged exposure to acids can dissolve tooth enamel, exposing the softer inner surfaces of teeth and making teeth more sensitive and vulnerable to damage.

Some common sources of acidic food and drink include:

  • soft drinks and energy drinks
  • fruit juices and cordials
  • wine and premixed alcoholic drinks
  • citrus fruits and lemon teas
  • vinegar

Teeth can also be eroded if they're frequently exposed to stomach acids from vomiting or acid reflux. As saliva helps to neutralises acids in the mouth, having a dry mouth increases the risk of dental erosion.

What are the signs of tooth erosion?

Acid wear can make the surfaces of teeth look smoother and shinier in certain places. If erosion continues, it can wear down the enamel to expose the dentine layer, which is more yellow in appearance. If you have fillings, these may become more visible.

Eroded teeth may also feel more sensitive when exposed to changes in temperature, pressure or sweetness.

How are tooth decay and erosion treated?

If you visit the dentist with a toothache or other symptoms, or your dentist diagnoses decay or erosion during your routine check-up, they'll discuss the treatments that are most appropriate for your situation. The sooner these problems can be diagnosed and treated, the less likely they are to cause permanent damage.

  • For minor tooth decay, your dentist may recommend a fluoride treatment to protect your teeth against plaque. They'll also give you advice for improving your daily oral hygiene routine and diet.
  • If your teeth have already been damaged or worn down, your dentist may recommend repairing them with a white filling or dental crown, depending on how much of the tooth's structure remains and its strength.
  • If decay or erosion has exposed the centre of your tooth, your dentist may suggest a root canal treatment and crown to repair the tooth from the inside out.

Your dentist will make sure you know everything you need to about treatments, including costs and whether you can claim them on your health fund, so you can decide what's best for you.

Preventing tooth decay and erosion

Dental decay and erosion can usually be avoided if you follow good oral hygiene habits to prevent the build-up of bacteria on your teeth and reduce contact with acids. This includes:

  • brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing daily
  • following a balanced diet and cutting down on sugar
  • not snacking between meals to reduce exposure to acids
  • drinking fluoridated tap water to stay hydrated and rinse your mouth
  • chewing sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva flow
  • seeing a dentist for your regular check-up and teeth cleaning

If your dentist thinks you may be at high risk of tooth decay, they might recommend fissure sealants. This involves filling the small holes in the biting surfaces of teeth to make them easier to clean and less likely to trap food and bacteria.

You can try to reduce acid wear from vomiting and reflux by rinsing your mouth with water. Don't brush your teeth soon after they're exposed to acid, as they'll be more sensitive and could be damaged by brushing. You should talk to a doctor if you suffer from vomiting and reflux regularly.

Make an appointment with a Brisbane dentist

If your teeth feel painful or sensitive or you want to talk to a dentist in confidence about anything else, contact our team at Face Value Dental.

Call (07) 3221 0677 to talk to our dentists in Brisbane CBD or book an appointment today.

References

Healthdirect. Tooth decay [Online] 2019 [Accessed April 2020] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/tooth-decay

Better Health Channel. Tooth decay [Online] 2018 [Accessed April 2020] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/Tooth-decay

Better Health Channel. Dental erosion [Online] 2019 [Accessed April 2020] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dental-erosion

 
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