If you touch your teeth with a tip of your tongue several hours after you washed them, you will feel that some places are covered with a layer of rough, sticky substances. This deposit – called a dental plaque – consists of mucus, food particles and bacteria, and is mainly formed between the teeth and on the places where the teeth enter the gums. Bacteria in plaque dissolve sugar in food, creating acid.
Acid attacks dental enamel, forming a small cavity – this is the beginning of tooth decay or caries. If the treatment is delayed, the acid will slowly penetrate the enamel and enter into the dentin. Dentin contains small canals that lead to the pulp, and bacteria that pass through these canals cause pulp infection. The body reacts by sending a larger number of white blood cells into the pulp to “fight” against the bacteria. Blood vessels are therefore widening, pressing the nerve in the tooth, resulting in toothache. If nothing is done, the affected pulp will eventually decay (see dead teeth). The toothache will then stop, but abscess can develop (see tooth abscess).
In the initial stages of tooth decay (caries) is the main symptom of mild toothache after you have eaten something sweet, hot or cold. If the caries progress, you will feel an unpleasant taste that comes from the teeth – the result of the food that is left in the cavity, as well as the bacteria.
In later stages the pulp is inflamed, and you will feel stronger (and longer) pain after a sweet, hot, or cold food. Another possible symptom is a sharp pain that occurs when you lay down. Sometimes it is difficult to determine which tooth causes pain.
Tooth decay (dental caries) is one of the most common things that affects mankind, especially in countries where many sugars are consumed. In the United Kingdom, every child at the age of five ”loses” three teeth on average due to caries, sealing or extraction. In the adult population, about 30% of people have no natural teeth – unlike the United States where this percentage is much smaller, 14%.
Caries generally do not present a danger to health. However, there is a danger in people who are suffering from some heart disease, especially if bacteria from dead teeth enter the bloodstream (bacterial endocarditis). Likewise, if you suffer from a disease that affects the blood clot, such as hemophilia, your teeth can be extracted only in hospital.
What to do?
Regularly brush your teeth with a toothbrush and a fluoride-containing toothpaste, and regularly go to the dentist. With regular X-ray (approximately once a year), possible cavities under the filling (sealing) can be detected.
Self-help: preventing caries is extremely important. When uncomfortable symptoms appear, in most cases you will not be able to do anything alone. You may be able to relieve the symptoms with painkillers (e.g. aspirin) until you go to the dentist, which you should do as soon as possible.
Professional help: the dentist will put a temporary sedative seal (filling) or a swab with clove oil and zinc oxide in the cavity. As the inflammation is reduced, temporary filling is replaced with a permanent one. If the caries is advanced, it may be necessary to clean the cavity where the pulp is located and seal it. In some cases the tooth will need to be removed.