Tooth Decay: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, And Prevention

9 min read
Feb 20, 2024
Tooth Decay: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, And Prevention
The enamel on a tooth is the hard outer layer that is destroyed by tooth decay. Cavities can result from tooth decay that has penetrated deeper layers of the tooth. Treatments may involve crowns, fillings, fluoride, and other procedures.
If dental decay is not treated, it may result in additional problems with the teeth and mouth. On the other hand, some therapies can aid in halting or preventing tooth decay from spreading.
The causes, signs, and treatments of tooth decay will all be covered in this article.

What is tooth decay?

Cavities, dental caries, and tooth decay are diseases that lead to the deterioration of tooth enamel.
Cavities may begin to appear once tooth decay has weakened the enamel.
The American Dental Association (ADA) states that teeth are made up of three layers:
  • Enamel: The tooth's enamel is the hard outer covering that covers and shields the inner layers. Enamel, the toughest substance in the human body, is devoid of live cells.
  • Dentin: The second layer of a tooth is called dentin. The dentin may become seen if the enamel is broken. Foods that are hot or cold can trigger the nerves in teeth through tiny tubes found within the dentin. The tooth may become sensitive and painful as a result of these nerves being stimulated.
  • Pulp: The pulp is the tooth's core. Nerves, connective tissue, and blood arteries are all present in the pulp.
Dental caries can manifest in different degrees of severity. Tooth decay can result in a variety of damage, from painful abscesses within the tooth pulp to wear on the enamel.


Depending on how much damage has been done, tooth decay symptoms can change.
Tooth decay patients may be sensitive to hot, cold, or sugary foods and beverages.
Tooth decay patients may be sensitive to hot, cold, or sugary foods and beverages.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) states that some individuals may not exhibit any symptoms while their tooth decay is in its early stages. But as dental decay worsens, a person could encounter the following symptoms:
  • Sensitivity of the teeth to hot, cold, or sugary foods
  • Ongoing dental discomfort
  • Distinctive shades on the teeth
  • Bad breath
  • Fillings that are loose
  • Teeth cavities Food frequently lodged in teeth
  • Having trouble biting into some meals
  • Tooth abscesses that hurt, swell the face, or raise a fever


According to a Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) publication, tooth decay is caused by plaque accumulation on the tooth.
On teeth, plaque is a sticky film of microorganisms. Acids that damage tooth enamel are produced by bacteria in plaque when a person consumes sugary or starchy foods.
These acids gradually dissolve the enamel on teeth, removing minerals, which leads to tooth decay and cavities.
People of any age might be affected by tooth decay. Approximately 20% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 are estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to have at least one untreated tooth that is decaying.
Gum recession, a condition where the gums recede from the tooth and reveal the tooth's root, is a possibility for older persons.
The tooth's root is covered in cementum, which is softer than enamel. According to the ADA, this could increase the tooth's vulnerability to decay.
Tooth decay may be more likely to affect a person if they:
  • Feel as though your mouth is dry
  • Possess thinning enamel due to a genetic condition or illness
  • Don't use fluoride toothpaste to brush their teeth twice a day.
  • Experience a disordered eating pattern, such as bulimia or anorexia.
  • Have acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (gerd)


Depending on the extent of the tooth decay, a dentist can prescribe a course of therapy.
Tooth decay treatment options include:

Early-stage fluoride treatments

One mineral that can support enamel strength is fluoride. Fluoride comes in a variety of forms that a dentist can use to help prevent and even reverse tooth decay.
Professional fluoride treatments can be applied directly to teeth by a dentist.
Usually only a few minutes are needed for these fluoride treatments. Fluoride can be found as a solution, gel, foam, or varnish.


Dental deterioration can result in cavities, in which case a filling may be necessary.
The dentist molds the cavity to accommodate the filling after drilling the tooth to eliminate any decay.
After that, the dentist uses composite or dental amalgam to fill the cavity.


The American Dental Association states that crowns rather than fillings may be necessary for bigger cavities caused by tooth decay.
The dentist eliminates any deterioration and the outer layer of the tooth before placing a crown.
Usually 1-2 weeks after taking an imprint of the tooth, the dentist will install a temporary crown until the permanent one is ready.

Root canals

When the pulp of the tooth is injured, a dentist can treat it with a root canal to assist avoid extraction.
The American Association of Endodontists (AAE) states that the pulp of the tooth is removed after the dentist numbs it. After that, they will shape and clean the tooth's root canal.
To remove any bacteria from the tooth, the dentist may also use medication.
After that, the dentist will use a material that resembles rubber to fill the root canals and cover the tooth with a crown or filling to reinforce and restore it.

Tooth extraction

If a patient's dental decay has seriously damaged their tooth, a dentist could advise having the tooth extracted.
The damaged tooth will first be made numb by the dentist. The dentist will advise a post-extraction regimen after extracting the tooth.
It's common for someone to have pain or edema following tooth extractions. However, a person should see a dentist or seek medical assistance right once if they experience any of the following symptoms:
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Severe pain, swelling, or bleeding
  • Pain that increases over time

Is it reversible?

Tooth decay can be reversed if detected in its early stages, according to the NIDCR. But once a tooth develops a cavity and too many minerals have been lost from its enamel, the tooth cannot heal itself.
Damage can be treated by a dentist to stop it from getting worse.
Reversing tooth decay can be achieved through reducing consumption of sugary and starchy foods and maintaining proper oral hygiene.


A person should see a dentist if they think they might have tooth decay.
The patient may be questioned by the dentist about any discomfort or symptoms. To find any cavities, the dentist could also perform an X-ray on the patient.
The dentist will go over additional treatment choices with you after diagnosing tooth decay.


According to the NIDCR, tooth decay can cause a number of issues if left untreated, including:
  • Tooth pain
  • Infection
  • Loss of teeth
  • Abscesses
Sepsis is one of the potentially fatal illnesses that can result from abscesses.
Anyone experiencing any of the following signs should get in touch with their dentist right away:
  • Fever
  • Tooth pain
  • Tooth sensitivity to hot and cold
  • Swollen gums
  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck
  • Swollen jaw
The National Health Service (NHS) states that in the UK, abscesses can also result in:
  • Bad breath
  • An unpleasant taste in the mouth
  • Discomfort that radiates to the jaw, neck, and ears
In addition to being harsher when one is lying down, tooth discomfort can also wake one up at night.


The American Dental Association advises consumers to stop or prevent tooth decay by:
  • Brushing with fluoride toothpaste twice a day
  • Restricting snacking
  • Consuming wholesome, nourishing food
  • Consulting a dentist about supplements containing fluoride
  • Routinely seeing a dentist for examinations and cleanings

When to see a dentist

Anybody who feels pain or discomfort in their teeth should get in touch with their dentist.
To avoid decay, a person should also schedule routine examinations at the dentist.

In brief

Since nine out of ten persons over the age of twenty have some degree of tooth decay, tooth decay is a common condition.
The severity of tooth decay might vary, and there are several appropriate treatments available.
A patient should get in touch with their dentist if they exhibit signs of tooth decay.
Tooth decay can result in more serious diseases and even tooth loss if left addressed.

FAQ about Tooth Decay

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay is a disease that damages the hard tissues of your teeth, starting with the enamel and progressing deeper into the tooth.

Is tooth decay reversible?

Fluoride treatments and proper dental hygiene can reverse early-stage tooth decay. However, advanced decay requires fillings, crowns, or other treatments.

How common is tooth decay?

Nine out of ten adults have some form of tooth decay.

What are the complications of untreated tooth decay?

Pain, infection, tooth loss, and even serious health problems like sepsis.

What causes tooth decay?

Plaque buildup on teeth, which produces acids that erode enamel. Sugary and starchy foods contribute to plaque growth.

Who is more at risk for tooth decay?

People with dry mouth, weak enamel, poor oral hygiene, eating disorders, acid reflux, or certain medications.

What are the symptoms of tooth decay?

Toothache, sensitivity to hot or cold, visible holes, discoloration, bad breath, loose fillings.

How do I identify tooth decay in my teeth?

See a dentist for diagnosis and proper treatment.

What are the treatment options for tooth decay?

Fluoride treatments, fillings, crowns, root canals, tooth extraction.

What is the best treatment for tooth decay?

The best treatment depends on the severity of the decay. Consult your dentist for personalized advice.

How can I prevent tooth decay?

Brush twice daily with fluoride toothpaste, floss daily, limit sugary and starchy foods, see your dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings.

What are the different types of fillings?

There are several types of fillings available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages:
  • Silver amalgam fillings: These are the traditional metal fillings, known for their durability and affordability. However, they are noticeable due to their silver color and may not be the best choice for cosmetic concerns.
  • Composite fillings: These tooth-colored fillings are made of resin and are more aesthetically pleasing than amalgam fillings. They bond directly to the tooth, offering good strength and wear resistance. However, they may not be as durable as amalgam fillings and can chip or break over time.
  • Ceramic fillings: These fillings are made of porcelain and offer excellent durability, strength, and a natural look. They are more resistant to staining and chipping than composite fillings but are also more expensive.
  • Gold fillings: These fillings are highly durable and biocompatible but are the most expensive option. They are often used for larger cavities or back teeth due to their strength and longevity.
The best type of filling for you will depend on the size and location of the cavity, your cosmetic preferences, insurance coverage, and budget. Consult your dentist to discuss the best option for your individual needs.

What is the cost of treating tooth decay?

The cost of treating tooth decay varies greatly depending on the severity of the decay, the type of treatment needed, and your location.
Early-stage cavities may be treated with simple fluoride treatments, costing around $50-$100, while more advanced decay requiring fillings, crowns, or root canals can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per tooth.
Dental insurance can help offset some of the costs, but coverage varies widely. Checking your insurance plan and discussing cost estimates with your dentist before treatment is crucial.

What are some home remedies for toothache?


Home remedies should not replace professional dental care

It's important to remember that home remedies should never be used as a substitute for professional dental care. If you are experiencing toothache, it's crucial to see a dentist to determine the cause and get proper treatment.
However, some home remedies may offer temporary pain relief while you wait for your appointment:
  • Rinsing with warm salt water: Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and rinse your mouth gently for 30 seconds. Repeat several times a day.
  • Applying a cold compress: Place a cold compress on your cheek near the aching tooth for 15-20 minutes at a time.
  • Repeat as needed.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: Medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help manage pain while waiting for professional care.


These are just temporary measures, and seeking professional dental care is essential for addressing the underlying cause of your toothache and preventing further complications.

How can I care for my teeth after a filling or crown?

Proper care after getting a filling or crown is crucial for ensuring its longevity and protecting your teeth. Here are some tips:
  • Brush and floss regularly: Maintain good oral hygiene by brushing twice daily with fluoride toothpaste and flossing once a day.
  • Avoid hard and chewy foods: Avoid biting into hard or chewy foods that could damage your filling or crown.
  • Chew on the opposite side: When chewing, try to favor the opposite side of your mouth from the filled or crowned tooth.
  • Schedule regular dental checkups: Visit your dentist for regular checkups and cleanings to monitor your oral health and ensure the filling or crown remains in good condition.
By following these tips, you can help your filling or crown last for many years and maintain good oral health.


This is not an exhaustive list. It's always best to consult with your dentist for personalized advice and treatment specific to your needs.

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