Health

What Do Cavities Look Like?

Cavities, also known as dental caries or tooth decay, are a common oral health problem that affects people of all ages. They result from the breakdown of tooth enamel due to the acids produced by bacteria in plaque, which accumulates on teeth surfaces over time. In this article, we will delve what do cavities look like, their various stages, and how they can be detected and treated to maintain optimal oral hygiene and prevent tooth loss.

What Is a Cavity?

A cavity is a small hole or damage in the tooth enamel caused by the gradual breakdown of tooth structure due to tooth decay. This decay occurs when bacteria present in the mouth produce acids that break down the enamel, the hard outer layer of the tooth. Over time, these acids weaken and dissolve the tooth enamel, leading to the formation of a cavity.

What do cavities look like?

Cavities, also known as dental caries, can vary in appearance depending on their severity. In their early stages, cavities might not be easily visible. As they progress, common signs can include:

White Spots: These are the earliest signs of enamel demineralization, where the surface appears chalky or discoloured.

Brown or Dark Spots: As the cavity progresses, it can create dark or brown spots on the tooth’s surface.

Visible Holes or Pits: Advanced cavities can result in the actual formation of holes or pits on the tooth surface.

Tooth Sensitivity: Cavities can cause sensitivity to hot, cold, sweet, or acidic foods and beverages.

Toothache: As the cavity reaches the deeper layers of the tooth, you might experience pain or discomfort, especially when biting down.

Painful Chewing: Chewing on the affected tooth may cause pain due to the damage to the tooth structure.

Bad Breath: Bacteria in cavities can lead to bad breath or an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

What causes cavities?

Cavities are caused by a combination of factors that contribute to tooth decay. The main factors include:

  • Bacteria 

The human mouth is home to numerous bacteria, some of which are harmful. Specific bacteria, such as Streptococcus mutans, feed on the sugars and starches present in food particles left on the teeth. As these bacteria consume these substances, they produce acids that can erode the tooth enamel.

  • Plaque formation 

Plaque is a sticky, colourless film of bacteria and food debris that constantly forms on the surface of teeth. The acids produced by bacteria in plaque can damage the tooth enamel, eventually leading to the formation of cavities.

  • Food and drink 

Consuming foods and drinks high in sugar and carbohydrates can increase the risk of cavities, as these substances provide fuel for bacteria in the mouth. Acidic foods and drinks can also contribute to tooth enamel erosion.

  • Inadequate oral hygiene 

Poor oral hygiene practices, such as irregular or improper brushing and flossing, can allow plaque to build up on teeth surfaces. This plaque can harden into tartar, making it more challenging to remove and increasing the risk of cavities.

  • Dry mouth 
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Saliva plays a crucial role in neutralising acids and washing away food particles. A decrease in saliva production, known as dry mouth or xerostomia, can increase the risk of cavities. Dry mouth can be caused by various factors, including certain medications, medical conditions, and lifestyle habits like smoking.

  • Tooth anatomy and location 

Teeth with deep grooves or pits, such as molars, are more susceptible to cavities, as they can trap food particles and bacteria more easily. Additionally, cavities are more likely to form between teeth, where it is harder to clean.

What are the symptoms of a cavity?

Cavity symptoms can vary depending on the extent and location of the decay. In the early stages, a cavity may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, as the decay progresses, the following symptoms may appear:

Toothache 

A persistent or intermittent toothache is one of the most common symptoms of a cavity. The pain may be mild or severe and can be triggered by consuming hot, cold, sweet, or acidic foods and drinks.

Tooth sensitivity 

The affected tooth may become sensitive to temperature changes or pressure when biting or chewing.

Visible holes or pits 

In some cases, a visible hole or pit may appear on the surface of the tooth as the cavity forms.

Staining

The tooth may develop brown, black, or white stains on the surface as a result of the decay.

Bad breath

Persistent bad breath or an unpleasant taste in the mouth can be a sign of tooth decay or infection.

Swelling 

In advanced stages, a cavity may cause swelling in the surrounding gum tissue due to infection.

Pain when biting or chewing 

Discomfort while eating or applying pressure to the tooth can indicate a cavity, especially if the pain is localized to a specific tooth.

What is the difference between cavities and tooth erosion?

Here is a comparison table that highlights the differences between cavities and tooth erosion:

AspectCavitiesTooth Erosion
DefinitionSmall holes or damage in the tooth enamel caused by acids produced by bacteria in the mouth.Gradual wearing away of the tooth enamel due to direct contact with acids from external sources, such as acidic foods and beverages.
CauseBacterial action; plaque formation and acids produced by bacteria consuming sugars and starches.Direct exposure to acids from external sources, such as acidic foods and drinks, or medical conditions like GERD or bulimia.
ProgressionLocalised areas of the tooth surface are affected, starting with the enamel and progressing to the dentin and pulp if left untreated.Affects the entire tooth surface in a more uniform manner, leading to a general loss of enamel.
SymptomsToothache, tooth sensitivity, visible holes or pits, staining, bad breath, swelling, and pain when biting or chewing.Tooth sensitivity, discoloration, and a smooth, shiny appearance on the tooth surface.
PreventionGood oral hygiene practices, regular dental checkups, and limiting the consumption of sugary and starchy foods.Good oral hygiene practices, regular dental checkups, and limiting the consumption of acidic foods and beverages.
Potential ImpactPain, infection, and potential tooth loss if left untreated.Increased risk of cavities, tooth sensitivity, and weakened tooth structure.

How do dentists detect cavities?

Some common methods used by dentists to detect cavities include:

Visual examination

Dentists carefully inspect the teeth for visible signs of decay, such as dark spots, holes, or pits. They may use a small mirror to check the back of the teeth and other hard-to-see areas.

Dental probe

A dental explorer or probe is a sharp, metal instrument that dentists use to gently probe the tooth surface. If the probe sticks or sinks into the tooth surface, it may indicate a soft spot or a cavity.

X-rays 

Dental X-rays, also known as radiographs, are essential tools for detecting cavities that are not visible to the naked eye, such as those between teeth or below the gum line. X-rays can reveal the extent of the decay and help the dentist determine the appropriate treatment.

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Fluorescent dyes 

Some dentists use fluorescent dyes that can help reveal early signs of decay. The dye is applied to the tooth surface and binds to the decayed areas, making them easier to see under a special light.

Laser fluorescence devices 

Devices like DIAGNOdent use laser fluorescence to detect tooth decay. The device emits a laser beam that is absorbed by the tooth, and the reflected light is measured. Healthy tooth structure reflects the light differently than decayed tooth structure, allowing the dentist to identify areas of decay.

Transillumination

This technique involves shining a bright light through the tooth. Healthy tooth structure allows the light to pass through, while cavities or decayed areas block the light, appearing as dark spots.

What is the role of diet in cavity formation?

Diet plays a significant role in cavity formation, as the foods and beverages we consume can directly impact the oral environment and the health of our teeth. Some aspects of diet that contribute to cavity formation include:

Sugary and starchy foods: Foods high in sugar and starches, such as candies, cookies, cakes, and potato chips, provide an energy source for the bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria feed on the sugars and starches, producing acids that can break down the tooth enamel and lead to cavities.

Acidic foods and drinks: Consuming acidic foods and beverages, like citrus fruits, tomatoes, and sodas, can weaken the tooth enamel, making it more susceptible to decay. Frequent exposure to acidic substances can lead to tooth erosion, which can increase the risk of cavities.

Frequency of consumption: Constant snacking or sipping on sugary drinks throughout the day can increase the risk of cavities, as it continuously provides fuel for the bacteria in the mouth. The acids produced by the bacteria remain in contact with the tooth surface for longer periods, leading to prolonged enamel demineralization.

Sticky and chewy foods: Foods that stick to the teeth, like caramel, taffy, and dried fruits, can promote cavity formation, as they prolong the exposure of the tooth surface to sugars and acids.

Poorly balanced diet: A diet lacking essential nutrients, such as calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins, can compromise the overall oral health and the body’s ability to fight off infections and maintain strong teeth.

How are cavities treated?

The treatment of cavities depends on the extent and severity of the tooth decay. Dentists use various methods to treat cavities and restore the affected teeth. Some common treatments include:

  • Dental fillings 

For small to moderate cavities, dentists typically use dental fillings to treat the decayed tooth. The dentist removes the decayed material, cleans the affected area, and then fills the cavity with a filling material such as amalgam, composite resin, or porcelain. Dental fillings help restore the tooth’s structure and prevent further decay.

  • Inlays and onlays 

When a cavity is too large for a standard filling but doesn’t require a crown, inlays and onlays may be used. These are custom-made, indirect fillings that are fabricated in a dental laboratory and then cemented or bonded to the tooth. Inlays fit within the tooth’s cusps, while onlays extends over one or more of the cusps.

  • Dental crowns 

If a tooth has extensive decay or is weakened and at risk of breaking, a dental crown may be necessary. Crowns are tooth-shaped caps that cover the entire visible part of the tooth, providing added strength and protection. The dentist will remove the decayed material, reshape the tooth, and then place a custom-made crown made of porcelain, gold, or other materials over the tooth.

  • Root canal treatment

If the decay has reached the tooth’s pulp (the innermost layer containing nerves and blood vessels), a root canal treatment may be needed. The dentist removes the decayed material, cleans and disinfects the pulp chamber, and then fills and seals the tooth. A dental crown is usually placed on top of the treated tooth to provide added strength and protection.

  • Tooth extraction 

In cases where the tooth decay is severe and cannot be restored, tooth extraction may be the only option. The dentist will remove the affected tooth and may recommend a dental implant, bridge, or denture to replace the missing tooth and restore function and aesthetics.

It is essential to seek dental treatment as soon as you suspect a cavity or experience any symptoms of tooth decay. Early detection and treatment of cavities can prevent more severe dental problems, potential tooth loss, and the need for more invasive treatments.

FAQ

Q1: How can I tell if I have a cavity?

Ans: Symptoms may include toothache, sensitivity to hot, cold or sweet foods, visible holes, staining, and bad breath. Visit a dentist for a proper evaluation.

Q2: Are dental fillings painful?

Ans: Local anesthesia is used to numb the area, minimizing pain during the procedure. You may experience mild discomfort or sensitivity afterward.

Q3: How long do dental fillings last?

Ans: The longevity of dental fillings depends on the material and oral care. They can last from 5 to 15 years or longer with proper care.

Q4: Can cavities heal on their own?

Ans: Cavities cannot heal on their own. Early-stage enamel demineralization can be reversed, but once a cavity forms, professional dental treatment is required.

Q5: Is fluoride safe for cavity prevention?

Ans: Fluoride is safe and effective for cavity prevention when used in appropriate amounts in toothpaste, mouthwash, and drinking water.