How do cavities form, and what can you do to avoid them? We’ll shed light on the answers to these questions and more below.
In this blog, we’ll look at the following:
- How does a cavity form?
- Why do cavities form?
- How long do cavities take to form?
- How do you know if you have a cavity?
- How did I get a cavity even though I brush?
- Can a cavity heal on its own?
- When should you get cavity treatment?
How Does A Cavity Form?
Your mouth is full of bacteria. It’s just a normal part of life. When these bacteria get to a point where they begin destroying areas of your tooth, a cavity forms. Cavities, also called caries, typically start on your tooth enamel as a tiny spot, but they will eventually eat through your enamel and tooth structure if left untreated. Cavities are very common among adolescents aged 12 to 19, with 57% having had a cavity in their permanent teeth.
Everyone gets plaque on their teeth. In fact, more than 80% of American adults suffer from periodontal disease (gum disease) caused by plaque formation. Plaque is a sticky substance in which bacteria thrive. When it’s not removed by saliva or brushing, it begins to eat up the sugar from the food you eat. This produces acid that your saliva can’t easily wash away. Exposed to acid, it begins dissolving the hard tissue of the teeth (minerals that harden your tooth enamel), making it penetrable and creating tiny holes.
To put it simply:
- When you get plaque build-up on the surfaces of your teeth, the plaque’s bacteria produce acid that feeds on sugar and causes damage to your teeth’s surface underneath.
- When you brush and floss your teeth, you remove the plaque and stop the current attack. However, the damage that was already done stays.
- Once plaque builds up again, the acid resumes attacking and causes further damage.
- When allowed to persist and stay on your tooth’s surface long enough — such as when you’re not brushing your teeth as often as you should — you end up with a cavity.
With time, this acid creates a tiny hole in your enamel. Eventually, that hole gets bigger and forms a cavity. If left untreated, the cavity can extend to the nerve of your tooth and become infected and painful. It can even destroy your entire tooth structure, requiring you to remove a tooth and have a dental implant put in its place.
Why Do Cavities Form?
As many as one in four adults in the US have untreated tooth decay. But what causes this? Certain factors increase your risk of developing tooth decay and cavities. These are:
Eating a Diet That’s High in Sugary Foods
Eating a diet that’s high in sugary foods is a significant risk factor for developing cavities. When acid frequently penetrates your tooth because you consume foods or drinks high in sugar and starch, it attacks your enamel and can cause it to lose its minerals.
Having Poor Dental Hygiene
If you don’t brush and floss your teeth twice daily or visit your dentist every six months, you increase your risk of cavities.
Producing Insufficient Saliva to Naturally Wash Away Bacteria in Your Mouth
The saliva in your mouth helps keep plaque from building up on your teeth by washing away food particles. When you have a dry mouth or low salivary flow, whether it’s due to genetics, a medical condition, or medications you’re taking, your teeth are exposed to decay.
When you have uncontrolled diabetes, it takes a toll on your body, including your gums and teeth. You have a higher risk of cavities as your blood sugar level increases because you have more starches and sugars that interact with the plaque on your teeth, develop into acids, and wear away at your teeth’ enamel.
Having Certain Genetic Factors
Genetic factors also significantly influence your risk of developing tooth decay. These genetic factors may include:
- Tooth shape and size.
- Teeth Grooves. If you have small teeth with numerous grooves and deep pits, they are more susceptible to the formation of cavities than larger teeth with shallower and fewer grooves. Grooves in your teeth’s enamel make brushing difficult, allowing plaque to build up.
Your enamel defends your teeth against cavities, so the thicker your enamel is, the longer a cavity takes to penetrate through your tooth.
Tooth Bite And Position
When you have overlapped and crooked teeth, it gives the plaque more areas to build up. Crooked teeth are also harder to clean. A poor bite can cause the enamel to wear down quickly on your teeth and expose soft dentin. This is why braces are an excellent cavity-prevention measure. Braces and aligners straighten your teeth and place them in the correct alignment.
Tooth Eruption And Progression
Children have a higher risk of cavities when their permanent teeth come in early since they may not have developed good oral hygiene practices yet.
How Long Do Cavities Take To Form?
How fast does a cavity form? Thankfully, cavities don’t form overnight. It’s a gradual process and can take months, or sometimes years, before tooth decay has gotten to the point where attention is needed. But when an acidic oral environment is present, it can cause tooth demineralization and the formation of a cavity.
Cavities form more quickly in children than in adults. The enamel in children’s teeth is weaker than adult teeth, making them more susceptible to cavities. A cavity can form in a child’s tooth in a few months, whereas it can take up to 12 months for a cavity to form in an adult.
How Do You Know If You Have A Cavity?
Once you get a cavity that penetrates deep within your tooth, it can make your mouth sensitive to hot, cold, or sweet foods. After a while, it will likely cause pain, known as a toothache.
This is why having your dentist examine your teeth every six months is crucial. You might be unable to detect cavities, but your dentist can find them in your regular dental exam. However, early signs of tooth decay can be missed, even by your dentist, so it’s essential to point out any other abnormality in your teeth to your dentist.
If your front teeth have cavities, they’ll be easier to spot. Cavities are typically brownish spots and are where the structure of your tooth has become soft because of the acid-attacking bacteria. If the spot is light brown, that usually indicates a fast-growing cavity. Darker brown is a cavity that is typically growing slower. If the cavity gets big enough, it can leave a hole in the tooth or even cause it to break.
You may have undiagnosed cavities if you notice any:
- Dull mouth pain or a toothache.
- Sensitivity in your teeth to hot, cold, or sweet foods.
- Difficulty with eating, pain on the chewing surface of the tooth
- Visible pits or holes in your teeth.
- Tooth abscess: A pocket of pus caused by a bacterial infection that can be accompanied by swelling in the gums and jaw.
- Inflammation of the tissue around the tooth.
These symptoms can indicate one or more cavities in your teeth, which you should get treated by your dentist right away. Your dentist can treat the cavities quickly in the initial stages by drilling the hole and filling it with a resin or other metal material. Identifying cavities and getting them treated early is critical to preserving your teeth and the health of your mouth.
How Did I Get A Cavity Even Though I Brush?
If you’re brushing your teeth but lack other dental care hygiene like daily flossing, you can still be at high risk of cavities. Interproximal cavities form between teeth when built-up plaque eats away at tooth enamel.
Can A Cavity Heal On Its Own?
Cavities develop due to tooth decay. Tooth decay is a process that can be stopped or reversed with good oral hygiene as long as it’s still in the early phases of degradation.
How Can You Prevent Cavities?
Proper dental and oral hygiene is vital to prevent tooth decay and cavities. Some steps you can take to keep your teeth and mouth healthy are:
- Brushing and flossing: Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss daily
- Rinsing your mouth with a fluoride wash if recommended by your dentist.
- Scheduling regular dental checkups, preferably every six months.
- Drinking fluoridated tap water.
- Considering dental sealants.
- Avoiding candy, chips, and cookies high in sugar.
- Avoiding food that can get stuck in the pits and grooves of your teeth.
- Receiving dental fluoride treatments in the dentist’s office.
Ask your dentist which tips are best for you. How long it takes cavities to form is often about how well you care for your teeth, but sometimes, they may form no matter what you do. Therefore, regular dental exams are essential.
When Should You Get Cavity Treatment?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that although there has been a decline in tooth loss and decay over the past few decades, 91 percent of American adults aged 20 to 64 have cavities in their permanent teeth.
Since the early stages of cavities often arise with no symptoms, you must rely on your dental visits for a thorough cleaning and examination. If trouble spots are located, they must be treated immediately before a more significant problem arises. If you experience any sensitivity or tooth pain, call your dentist.
Regular dental visits are key to catching cavities in their tracks and treating them before they grow bigger. Don’t ignore smaller cavities since they can quickly turn into you needing a root canal, crown, or dental implant. The more the cavity grows, the more tooth structure you lose, leading to a higher risk of recurrent decay, fractured teeth, and tooth loss.
Don’t let your next question be, “How do I get rid of a cavity?” Contact our dentists at AZ Family Dental for a dental exam and consultation.
Published on: July 21, 2017
Updated on: November 20, 2023