Dental cavities (caries) are holes in the two outer layers of a tooth called the enamel and the dentin. The enamel is the outermost white hard surface and the dentin is the yellow layer just beneath enamel. Both layers serve to protect the inner living tooth tissue called the pulp, where blood vessels and nerves reside. Dental cavities are common, affecting over 90% of the population. Small cavities may not cause pain, and may be unnoticed by the patient. The larger cavities can collect food, and the inner pulp of the affected tooth can become irritated by bacterial toxins, foods that are cold, hot, sour, or sweet-causing toothache. Toothache from these larger cavities is the number one reason for visits to dentists.
What are the causes of cavities?
Cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth consume simple sugars, converting them into acid plaque. Acid plaque is different from the periodontal plaque that causes “Gum Disease.” The acid plaque produced by these bacteria cause the hard inorganic layers of the enamel and dentin to soften. The softened layers are then dissolved by saliva, leaving a hole (cavity) in the tooth. Unless filled by a dentist, the cavity can continue to erode and damage the inner pulp of the tooth. Damage to the pulp can lead to pulp death, infection and tooth abscess. Therefore, pulp damage will necessitate either tooth extraction or a root canal procedure where the dying pulp is removed and replaced with an inert material.