On the surface of your teeth there is a constant battle going on between harmful tooth decaying acids and healthy minerals that strengthen the teeth. These acids form when bacteria in your mouth, known as plaque, feed on sugars, starches and carbohydrates from the food you eat. Due to the sticky nature of plaque, this bacteria then sticks onto your teeth slowly eating away at the surface.
As long as your teeth are receiving enough minerals to replenish the damage that these acids have done to the hard outer layer of your tooth, there isn’t much to worry about. Once the decay progresses into the softer inner layers of the tooth, however, dental intervention will be required to restore the tooth.
A tooth is made up of three layers that can be affected by tooth decay which are:
- Enamel – the hard outer layer of the tooth that is naturally white in colour. In fact, enamel is the hardest material in the human body.
- Dentin – the middle layer of the tooth which is softer than enamel but still harder than bones. This layer is a yellowish colour and makes up the majority of the tooth stucture.
- Dental Pulp – the inner soft layer of the tooth made up of tissues, nerves and blood vessels. This is the part of the tooth that receives nutrients.
Tooth decay has several stages, each of which affects different layers of the tooth and require different treatments to restore the tooth. Below is a description of each stage of tooth decay, with an explanation on the risks involved and what treatment will be required.
Tooth decay in its initial stage
During the initial stage of tooth decay, bacteria build up eats away at the minerals that the tooth enamel is made of in a process known as demineralization. If their isn’t a sufficient replenishment of healthy minerals in your saliva, the enamel will slowly deteriorate.
In this initial stage there won’t be any symptoms, however, there may be some minor visual signs of decay like small white or light brown spots on the tooth. It can take several months to years for the decay to progress past the tooth enamel and onto the next stage when it becomes more troublesome. In this initial stage, the decay can be reversed by simply changing your diet and oral hygiene routine to ensure your teeth are receiving an adequate replenishment of minerals while also washing away any harmful acids.
Formation of a cavity
If it isn’t caught in the initial stage, the tooth decaying acids will eventually penetrate through the layer of tooth enamel and into the dentin layer, creating a small hole known as a cavity. When the decay progresses to this stage it can accelerate rather quickly if not looked after right away since acids can get trapped inside the cavity, making it difficult to wash them away.
During this stage the dentin layer is exposed to the external environment which may cause some more noticeable symptoms such as:
- visible soft spots and cavities on the tooth
- sensitivity to extreme temperatures
- mild pain and discomfort when chewing or grinding teeth
When tooth decay has reached the dentin layer of the tooth, simply replenishing minerals will not suffice as a valid treatment option. Instead you will have to visit a dentist who can clean the inside of the cavity and fill it with a bio-compatible material to seal it from further damage. If it is not looked after at this stage, tooth decay can progress much quicker than in it’s initial stage into the layer of pulp, causing further complications.
Dental pulp infection
In the last stage of tooth decay, the acids penetrate into the inner most layer of the tooth. This layer is made of nerves and blood vessels which can get infected quite easily once they come in contact with bacteria in the mouth. Having an infection in the dental pulp will cause it to swell which can cause the following symptoms:
- tooth sensitivity to temperature differences
- toothache from the inflamed pulp pushing against the harder outer layers of the tooth
- swelling and puss in the surrounding adjoining gum tissue. This is a sign of severe tooth decay and a possible abscess which is considered a dental emergency.
Once tooth decay progresses to this stage it needs to be fixed right away. If it is not taken car of quickly, the infection can lead to an abscess, which bulge of puss that forms on the gum tissue. An abscess can be life threatening by causing an infection that makes it’s way into the bloodstream, therefore this stage of tooth decay requires emergency dental help.
The main treatment option for a pulp infection, before it causes an abscess, is to have root canal therapy performed on the tooth. During this process, the infected pulp is removed by making a hole in the top of the tooth and the empty space is properly disinfected. Once the tooth is free of infected tissue, the empty space is filled with a bio-compatible material, most often gutta percha.
As you can see, tooth decay starts off slow but can quickly accelerate once it penetrates past the enamel layer of the tooth. Sometimes you may not have any symptoms of tooth decay at all until it gets into the final stage. As a result you should visit a dentist right away if you notice any symptoms of tooth decay so you can prevent further, more dangerous complications.