Cavities

Also known as: tooth decay, caries.

What are cavities?

A cavity, caries, or tooth decay, is the damage that occurs to tooth enamel over time that is one of the most common and preventable chronic conditions seen in children. About 20 percent of 5-11 year olds have at least one untreated decayed tooth. Cavities are particularly prevalent in children and adolescents from lower socioeconomic households.

What causes cavities?

Bacteria that normally live in the mouth change a wide variety of foods containing sugars to acids which combine with plaque (a film of sticky bacteria that grows on the tooth) and cause the damage to the tooth enamel. This leads to tooth decay and cavities.

Risk factors for tooth decay include:

  • a large number of bacteria on teeth
  • diets high in sugars
  • poor dental hygiene (not brushing twice daily)
  • not flossing between teeth (beginning at 2 years of age)
  • poor mouth hygiene
  • little or no fluoride in toothpaste or the water
  • not seeing a dentist regularly (every 6 months after 1 year of age).

Sealing the irregularities in the back teeth may prevent decay and cavity formation.

What are the signs/symptoms of cavities?

Early signs include a dull white band (or white spots) on the tooth close to the gum line. Later a tooth may have brown spots/area or become black. As the cavity becomes deeper red, swollen and inflamed gums are also present.

Most cavities don’t cause symptoms and are detected during a regular dental visit. Tooth sensitivity to cold foods or pain and discomfort can occur if a cavity has been present for a long time and has not been treated. Severe decay may cause speech and jaw problems.

What are cavity care options?

Removing the decayed area and filling the cavity is the primary treatment of tooth decay.


Reviewed by: Jack Wolfsdorf, MD, FAAP

This page was last updated on: June 25, 2021 11:16 AM

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