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Dental caries, also known as tooth decay, cavities, or caries, is a breakdown of teeth due to activities of bacteria. The cavities may be a number of different colors from yellow to black. Symptoms may include pain and difficulty with eating. Complications may include inflammation of the tissue around the tooth, tooth loss, and infection or abscess formation.

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The cause of caries is bacterial break down of the hard tissues of the teeth (enamel, dentin and cementum). This occurs due to acid made from food debris or sugar on the tooth surface. Simple sugars in food are these bacteria’s primary energy source and thus a diet high in simple sugar is a risk factor. If mineral breakdown is greater than build up from sources such as saliva, caries results. Risk factors include conditions that result in less saliva such as: diabetes mellitus, Sjogren’s syndrome and some medications. Medications that decrease saliva production include antihistamines and antidepressants among others. Caries are also associated with poverty, poor cleaning of the mouth, and receding gums resulting in exposure of the roots of the teeth.

A person experiencing caries may not be aware of the disease. The earliest sign of a new carious lesion is the appearance of a chalky white spot on the surface of the tooth, indicating an area of demineralization of enamel. This is referred to as a white spot lesion, an incipient carious lesion or a “microcavity”. As the lesion continues to demineralize, it can turn brown but will eventually turn into a cavitation (“cavity”). Before the cavity forms, the process is reversible, but once a cavity forms, the lost tooth structure cannot be regenerated. A lesion that appears dark brown and shiny suggests dental caries were once present but the demineralization process has stopped, leaving a stain. Active decay is lighter in color and dull in appearance.

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As the enamel and dentin are destroyed, the cavity becomes more noticeable. The affected areas of the tooth change color and become soft to the touch. Once the decay passes through enamel, the dentinal tubules, which have passages to the nerve of the tooth, become exposed, resulting in pain that can be transient, temporarily worsening with exposure to heat, cold, or sweet foods and drinks.

There are four main criteria required for caries formation: a tooth surface (enamel or dentin), caries-causing bacteria, fermentable carbohydrates (such as sucrose), and time. However, it is also known that these four criteria are not always enough to cause the disease and a sheltered environment promoting development of a cariogenic biofilm is required. The caries process does not have an inevitable outcome, and different individuals will be susceptible to different degrees depending on the shape of their teeth, oral hygiene habits, and the buffering capacity of their saliva. Dental caries can occur on any surface of a tooth that is exposed to the oral cavity, but not the structures that are retained within the bone.

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Tooth decay is caused by specific types of bacteria that produce acid in the presence of fermentable carbohydrates such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose.

Caries occur more often in people from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale than people from the upper end of the socioeconomic scale.

The “bad guys” in fighting tooth decay:

  • Sugary candies and sweets that stay in your mouth
  • Starchy, refined carbohydrates
  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Fruit juice
  • Lemons, citrus fruits and other acidic foods
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