Tooth decay, which is also called dental cavities or dental caries, is the destruction of the outer surface (enamel) of a tooth. Decay results from the action of bacteria that live in plaque, which is a sticky, whitish film formed by a protein in saliva (mucin) and sugary substances in the mouth. The plaque bacteria sticking to tooth enamel use the sugar and starch from food particles in the mouth to produce acid.
Tooth decay develops at varying rates. It may be found during a routine six-month dental checkup before the patient is even aware of a problem. In other cases, the patient may experience common early symptoms, such as sensitivity to hot and cold liquids or localized discomfort after eating very sweet foods.
The dentist may suspect tooth decay if a dark spot or a pit is seen during a visual examination. Front teeth may be inspected for decay by shining a light from behind the tooth. This method is called transillumination. Areas of decay, especially between the teeth, will appear as noticeable shadows when teeth are transilluminated. X rays may be taken to confirm the presence and extent of the decay. The dentist then makes the final clinical diagnosis by probing the enamel with a sharp instrument.
To treat most cases of tooth decay in adults, the dentist removes all decayed tooth structure, shapes the sides of the cavity, and fills the cavity with an appropriate material, such as silver amalgam or composite resin. The filling is put in to restore and protect the tooth. If decay has attacked the pulp, the dentist or a specialist, called an endodontist, may perform root canal treatment and cover the tooth with a crown.
It is easier and less expensive to prevent tooth decay than to treat it. The four major prevention strategies include: proper oral hygiene, fluoride, sealants, and attention to diet.