Dental Cavities (Dental Caries)

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What are cavities?

Dental cavities are holes in teeth caused by tooth decay. Cavities are also referred to as caries.

What are microcavities?

Teeth are in an environment of constant acid attack that strips the teeth of important minerals and breaks the teeth down. While this attack is constantly occurring, minerals are also be constantly replenished through mineral-rich saliva and fluoridated water and toothpaste. In addition to fluoride, calcium and phosphate also help to remineralize enamel. When the demineralization starts and is confined to the outermost layer of enamel, it is called a microcavity, or incipient cavity. These types of cavities rarely need anything more than very conservative treatment. Only when the cavity breaks through the enamel layer and into the dentin does it really threaten the tooth. So when these microcavities are detected, it is best to try a remineralization protocol to see if they can be reversed instead of jumping to a filling right away. A dentist will help in determining the most effective conservative treatment for these early cavities.

The dentist's goal is to achieve a healthy balance between prevention and restoration. It is a balance between being proactive and reactive. The dentist doesn't want to be so proactive that he is recommending things that don't need to be done -- preventing problems that realistically never would have occurred. But he doesn't want to be so reactive that he simply watches small problems become big problems. One mistake people often make is waiting for pain to dictate the timing of treatment. Once a tooth starts hurting, it is often too late for remineralization or a small filling. Pain usually indicates a need for root canal treatment, a crown, or tooth extraction. There is some variability in how dentists will treat microcavities and when they determine a filling is necessary. Some people are more prone to caries than others. Analyzing one's history of cavities, current diet, and oral hygiene may lead the dentist to be more aggressive or more conservative with his recommendations. This is why it is important that each person finds a dentist that echoes his or her own philosophy regarding aggressive versus conservative dental treatment.

Regardless of the dentist, regular returns to the dentist are key to being conservative so the cavity can be monitored and treated before it grows too much. Small cavities can become root canals within a year under the right circumstances. As a cavity grows, more tooth structure is lost. And lost tooth structure leads to a greater likelihood of fractured teeth, recurrent decay, and tooth loss. When possible, one is always better off getting a small filling than ending up with a large filling, a root canal, or a crown.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/2/2014

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Dental Cavities - Treatment Question: Are you afraid to undergo treatment for cavities?
Cavities - Treatment Question: Do you or your child get lots of cavities or have several fillings? Please discuss treatment, including sealants.
Cavities - Prevention Question: What steps do you take to prevent cavities?

Cavities Between Teeth

Cavities in between teeth are commonly referred to as interproximal cavities or decay by your general dentist.


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