Tooth Decay


Known as carious lesions to a dentist, tooth decay is a process more than a condition; ranging from small, decalcified spots that may remain so for years, to completely destroyed teeth requiring immediate attention, decay can run the gamut.

Tooth decay is caused by bacteria that live in your mouth and the food that is left on your teeth. These bits of food can leave a sticky, colorless film on your teeth called plaque. Bacteria that live in the plaque make acids when they eat the food you leave behind on your teeth and that acid can eat holes in your teeth and cause a cavity. That’s why it’s important to brush and floss your teeth after every meal and before the food particles can turn into plaque.

Decay takes time. It usually begins at the outer layer of tooth enamel where plaque has formed. This phase is usually painless and often goes unnoticed. The decay then penetrates the dentin, which is the softer part of your tooth, inside the harder enamel. You may begin to notice increased sensitivity, especially to sweets, or even some pain, although this phase can also be painless.

Since the decay process speeds up at this phase, the softer tissue becomes affected and cannot support the enamel. It is at this point that the tooth may break down and cavities begin to form. If left untreated, decay may reach the pulp of the tooth [commonly called ‘the nerve’], which causes pain, usually in the form of a toothache. The tooth may die if the decay is not treated. This may require endodontic treatment [commonly called ‘root canal treatment’] or the loss of the tooth by extraction.

Since early phases of tooth decay are painless and may go unnoticed, it is very important to visit your Michigan Dental Association dentist every six months for your cleaning and checkup. Smaller cavities are usually easier, take less time, and cost less to fix, so it pays to be proactive. Ideally, before tooth decay even gets to this stage your dentist has detected the problem early and you both adjust your home care, diet, and return visits to prevent tooth decay from progressing to a filling or worse.