Maybe you have a throbbing pain in your gums. Maybe you feel sinus pressure that you can’t explain. Maybe you have sudden bad breath that won’t go away — no matter how much you brush your teeth.
All of the above are symptoms of a tooth gone bad. If you have a bad tooth, then your dentist can fix it and prevent the symptoms from getting worse.
However, if you’re choosing to ignore your symptoms, then it’s possible for them to progress into a more serious condition. This can even cause you to end up with a dental emergency.
In this guide from Flossy, we’ll explain exactly what the problem is with bad teeth. We’ll also go over what causes them and what you can do to fix them.
What Is a Bad Tooth?
A “bad” tooth can be used to describe a tooth in different stages of decay. To understand these different stages, let’s talk about how tooth decay happens in the first place.
- Enamel demineralization
- Enamel decay
- Dentin decay
- Pulp inflammation
- Dental abscess
Our mouth is full of naturally-occurring bacteria that are typically harmless. One type of bacteria is called plaque — which is a sticky film that forms on the surface of the teeth and gums and can lead to gum disease.
By brushing and flossing our teeth regularly, you protect your oral health and keep the plaque from forming in excessive amounts. However, if we let plaque build-up, then it can essentially turn into tartar — which is a hardened buildup that can only be removed by your dentist.
If tartar is covering your teeth, it may be difficult to clean your teeth and gums, which can increase your chances of developing tooth decay.
When tooth decay happens, it is usually a gradual process that takes place in five stages. Here is an overview of the stages of tooth decay:
1. Enamel Demineralization
The outermost layer of the tooth is called enamel, a hard substance that makes teeth hard and white. However, poor oral hygiene, exposure to acidic foods, and high sugar consumption can cause the minerals in enamel to wear away.
This is the first step of tooth decay. However, it is usually not accompanied by any obvious signs, which can make it hard to identify.
2. Enamel Decay
As the demineralization progresses, the enamel may form small holes known as cavities. This will usually be accompanied by increased sensitivity or pain. Fortunately, cavities can be identified (usually with the help of an X-ray) and quickly fixed with a cavity filling.
3. Dentin Decay
Dentin is the middle layer of the tooth, which is softer than enamel and contains a lower amount of minerals. It also contains microscopic tubes that connect to the tooth’s nerve endings.
Once the decay progresses past the enamel, it reaches dentin. Once it’s in this layer of the tooth, it progresses a lot faster. Damage in this layer of the tooth can be accompanied by strong sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures and a throbbing or gnawing pain.
4. Pulp Inflammation
The third and innermost layer of the tooth is the pulp. It contains nerves and blood vessels, which supply the tooth with oxygen and nutrient nutrients to keep it healthy. Because the enamel and dentin don’t have nerve endings, it’s the pulp that’s responsible for any sensations you may feel in your tooth.
When decay progresses to the pulp, it’s in its most serious stages. It can cause the nerves in the tooth to become inflamed and swollen. When this happens, the tissues surrounding the tooth will feel extra pressure, which can lead to pain.
5. Dental Abscess
When the pulp is infected, it can cause a pocket of pus to form at the bottom of the tooth. This is called a dental abscess.
A dental abscess can cause severe pain that can radiate throughout the jaw, cheek, and even eye socket. This condition is considered a dental emergency that must be treated as soon as possible in order to prevent more serious complications, such as the infection spreading to other parts of the face or body.
What Happens If You Don’t Treat a Bad Tooth?
If you don’t treat a bad tooth in the initial stages of decay, then it can progress to a dental abscess. An untreated dental abscess is a serious condition that can potentially cause death.
While it may seem like dental emergencies are rare, some studies show that hundreds of thousands of patients present to the emergency room every year for dental problems.
The same researchers also found that those hospitalized overnight for dental abscesses increased by almost 40% from 2000 to 2008. According to the analysis, of the almost 6,000 patients who were hospitalized, 66 died.
Unlike infections on the rest of your body — such as those from a cut — a tooth abscess is not able to get better on its own. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the jaw, neck, or other regions of the body.
In extreme cases, the bacteria from the tooth abscess can reach the heart lining, which can cause a condition known as bacterial endocarditis. Another serious complication that can develop is called Ludwig’s angina, in which the bacteria spread to the skin around the neck, mouth, and jaw.
Your risk for developing complications increases if you have a compromised immune system. Those with weak immunity are more likely to develop sepsis, a bacterial infection of the blood.
How To Tell If You Have Bad Teeth
The best way to tell if you have tooth damage is to visit your dentist for a check-up. With the help of an X-ray, they’ll be able to identify oral bacteria and decay to quickly address it.
However, we understand that not everyone has access to regular dental screenings. As such, you may not be aware of any problems until it progresses into a tooth abscess.
If you have a tooth abscess, you might experience symptoms such as throbbing or gnawing pain around the affected area. In some cases, the pain may be barely noticeable.
However, you may still experience other symptoms, such as swollen lymph nodes, sinus pressure, and tender gums.
Regardless of how mild your symptoms feel, it’s important to see a dentist if you experience any changes.
Case studies show that many serious complications (including death) are caused by patients ignoring their dental symptoms and failing to seek care on time. For instance, one 25-year-old patient experienced intermittent tooth pain for four months. Because he didn’t seek dental care in time, he developed heart complications, which led to his eventual death.
As such, any changes in your teeth and gums can be clinically significant. This makes it important to seek help any time you experience pain, swelling, pressure, tenderness, or sensitivity around the teeth or gums.
What Are the Stages of a Bad Tooth?
- Early tooth decay
- Moderate tooth decay
- Advanced tooth decay
How to fix a bad tooth depends on the stage of tooth decay. Here is an overview of how a bad tooth can be fixed depending on how severe the oral health problems are:
Early Tooth Decay
If the tooth decay has only progressed to the enamel, then there are several options for treating it. If you only experience demineralization, then restoring the mineral content in the enamel may be all that is necessary.
Your dentist can achieve this with a fluoride treatment, which is a naturally-occurring mineral that can make the enamel stronger and harder.
A fluoride treatment is usually applied in the form of a gel or varnish. While professional fluoride treatments are more effective than at-home treatments, you can also use a fluoride-containing toothpaste or mouthwash to restore your enamel.
If you have a cavity, then a fluoride treatment may not be enough to restore the damage. To repair a cavity, your dentist will use special tools to clear away the damage. Then, they will fill in the cavity with a tooth-colored material, such as resin. This will prevent any bacteria from getting deeper inside the tooth and causing further damage.
Moderate Tooth Decay
Once the tooth decay has progressed beyond the enamel — to the dentin — it will most likely require a cavity filling. In more serious cases, you might need a crown, which covers the entire tooth.
Before placing the crown, your dentist will remove the decayed area. Then they will place a crown over the tooth. A crown resembles your natural tooth and can be made from a material such as resin, porcelain, or ceramic. You may even choose to go for a gold or silver crown.
Advanced Tooth Decay
In the advanced stages of tooth decay, the infection has reached the pulp. Treatment usually involves a root canal.
During a root canal, your dentist will make tiny canals in the tooth in order to remove the inflamed nerves. After that has been cleared, they will place a crown over the tooth.
If you have developed a dental abscess, then a root canal may not be enough to prevent further complications. In some cases, your dentist might have to remove the tooth completely while putting you on a course of antibiotics to completely kill the bacteria.
After the extraction site heals, your dentist will be able to place an implant into the area to replace a missing tooth. Fortunately, this procedure has a high success rate and can help you restore your normal dental function.
What To Do Next
Tooth decay is responsible for hundreds of thousands of health issues and emergency room visits every year. As important as it is to see your dentist when you feel pain or sensitivity, sometimes life gets in the way. For some, busy schedules may prevent them from getting a dental screening. For others, their fear of dentists can keep them away.
However, for a significant portion of U.S. adults, a lack of dental insurance may prevent them from getting dental screenings — until they experience severe symptoms. If not having dental insurance is keeping you from taking care of your dental health, then Flossy can help.
We work with highly-vetted dentists in Arizona and New Mexico to provide you with dental services at a fraction of the cost of most practices.
Through our website or mobile app, you can find your next dentist, schedule an appointment, and pay for your discounted procedure — all within minutes. Visit Flossy to keep your dental health in top shape.