a diagram of tooth decay

Tooth Decay

The appearance of teeth is often one of the first signs of dental health, not to mention self-esteem.

Tooth decay is a very common dental issue, with research suggesting that up to half of all Australian children have some form of decay in their baby teeth. Your permanent teeth are not spared from this statistic either, as untreated decay is somewhat present in most adults.

In this article, we will look into this highly common health issue by learning how to identify it and discuss preventative measures as well as treatment options.

What is Tooth Decay?

‘Tooth decay’ refers to cavities (holes) which can develop in three main ways:

  • In the enamel (visible layer above the gumline) on the top of the teeth, known as a ‘pit or fissure cavity’
  • In the enamel around or between the teeth, known as a ‘smooth surface cavity’
  • In the ‘dentin’ (the layer under enamel) below the gumline, known as a ‘root cavity’

As not all cavities are easily visible, the damage can lead to pain or discomfort eating without a clear indication why. Similar to a dead tooth, this may result in tooth loss or infection if left untreated.

Symptoms and Causes

Tooth decay exposes sensitive nerves which leads to pain in the affected tooth, referred to as a toothache. As a cavity forms deeper through the protective layers of the tooth, your natural barriers to infectious bacteria and uncomfortable pressure are permanently destroyed.

If you are unsure if you have tooth decay and aren’t in pain, try to identify any discolouration in your teeth. This does not substitute an appointment with the dentist, however, it may indicate your teeth are in a process of decay.

Dental plaque is the likely suspect in causing tooth decay.

Plaque is a buildup of bacteria which forms a layer over the enamel of your teeth, usually visible as a yellow-ish ‘film’ above the gumline. The bacteria reacts with the natural chemicals in food and drink to produce acid. This acid damages and rots each layer forming your teeth.

If left untreated, plaque hardens to form ‘tartar’ that can only be removed by a professional. It can also lead to related issues such as gum disease which increases the chance and rate at which tooth decay occurs.

Treatment for Tooth Decay

Treatment for cavities depends on the extent of the damage found.

If tartar buildup is your only issue, a dentist will use a metal scaler to scrape away the film in a harmless and simple manner. It is recommended that you see a dentist every 6 months to ensure any tartar is removed.

If a cavity has formed, however, a dentist may recommend one of the following:

  • Fluoride treatment involves applying a layer of fluoride directly onto the affected teeth to promote self-repair of your enamel, so long as the decay is found before a cavity has formed
  • Filings can be applied to cavities to ‘fill’ them back to a normal structure after decayed tissue is removed (a root canal will be necessary if the damage has spread to the deepest layer of the affected tooth)
  • A tooth extraction may be necessary if repairing the tooth is not viable, with the option of an implant or bridge to replace the empty space after the procedure


Preventative Measures

As long as you have a daily dental routine, don’t worry.

Keeping up with your oral hygiene is necessary to prevent plaque buildup. Regularly brushing or flossing your teeth is able to remove the bacteria film before it can cause any issues. Doing so soon after a large meal is recommended, as it helps prevent bacteria from solidifying as tartar.

That’s not all, cutting down on your sugar intake is effective because sugars lower the pH level of harmful bacteria in your mouth (more than most substances). When the pH level of plaque is low enough, it becomes a damaging acid. 


Pain, discolouration, or deformation in your teeth can be a sign of tooth decay.

It is important to keep your oral hygiene in check to prevent the buildup of plaque on your teeth. This will ensure that your teeth remain in a healthy state and do not negatively react with the food and drink you consume. This is helped by regulating your diet so as to not consume too much sugar.

Treatment for tooth decay if it becomes an issue, nonetheless, is a well-known procedure that can be easily organised with your dentist. It is a common health problem, which presents the benefit of having a checkup twice a year.


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