Rotten teeth — also known as tooth decay — are one of the most common dental problems amongst U.S. adults. Rotten teeth range in severity and can cause a variety of symptoms. Because rotten teeth are strongly correlated with chronic disease, diagnosing and finding treatment options for the condition early is imperative.
In this guide from Flossy, we go over what causes rotten teeth, what you can do to treat them, and the best ways to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
When we talk about rotten teeth, we’re referring to teeth that decompose due to bacteria. Also known as tooth decay, rotten teeth are caused by damage to the tooth’s outermost layer, called the tooth enamel.
Enamel is a hard substance that is almost completely made out of minerals. It protects the deeper layers of the teeth — called the dentin and the pulp — from external elements.
However, when there is an overaccumulation of tartar on the teeth and bacteria in the mouth, you may begin to experience excess acid production. This excess acid can erode the enamel and create “holes” in the teeth that reach the innermost layers. These holes are called cavities and must be addressed as soon as possible in order to prevent further complications, such as toothaches, advanced stages of infection, and tooth loss.
In addition to dental problems, rotting teeth can have wide-ranging effects on the body. Because rotting teeth can lead to inflammation, this condition can put you at risk for various chronic conditions, such as diabetes, dementia, and cardiovascular disease.
For this reason, it’s important to recognize the warning symptoms and signs early. In the following sections, we’ll go over the causes of tooth decay and ways to tell if you have tooth decay.
Our bodies contain millions of different bacteria, which are collectively known as our microbiome. The microbiome plays an essential role in our health. When the bacteria are in balance, our bodies function smoothly. However, an imbalance between “good” and “bad” bacteria can lead to various health problems, which include your dental health.
Your mouth contains special types of bacteria, which can accumulate into sticky deposits known as dental plaque. When you consume flots of sugary foods and starches, the plaque bacteria feed on it and release acid as a byproduct.
If plaque is allowed to build up, then the acid can begin to dissolve the enamel, which leads to small holes in your teeth. These are also known as dental caries or cavities.
Once there are holes in the enamel, it is easier for bacteria to reach the deeper layers of the teeth, which undergo decay at a faster rate. If the bacteria reach deep enough, then they can reach the innermost part of the tooth — called the pulp — which is full of nerves. At this point, tooth decay can progress to extreme pain and even tooth loss.
Tooth decay usually results from inadequate oral hygiene. Not clearing away the plaque through an oral care routine with consistent brushing and flossing can lead to an over-accumulation of plaque, which can speed up tooth decay.
However, other risk factors can increase your chances of developing rotten teeth. For instance, a diet high in sugar and starchy foods can increase the growth of plaque bacteria. Conversely, following a low-carb diet is associated with reduced plaque formation.
Reduced salivary production is another risk factor for tooth decay. Because saliva is naturally antimicrobial, it plays an important role in keeping plaque bacteria levels in check. However, when its levels decrease, the amount of oral bacteria increases and can potentially lead to tooth decay.
The signs and symptoms of rotten teeth largely depend on how severe it is. If the condition is fairly mild, then you may not experience any symptoms at all and not know that you have tooth decay (which makes routine dental screenings so essential).
When tooth decay progresses, you may experience the following symptoms:
If you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s important to schedule an appointment for dental treatment as soon as possible. If you do not experience any symptoms, it is still important to have a routine dental check-up done every six months.
Your dentist will manually examine your mouth using dental instruments. They may also order a dental X-ray. In general, dentists perform a standard X-ray once per year.
If the examination points to tooth decay, then you have a variety of options for treatment.
In the early stages of tooth decay, you may be able to receive a fluoride treatment to repair the breakdown of enamel. In some cases, this may be all the treatment that you need.
In the more progressive stages of tooth decay, you may need to get a dental filling. In this procedure, your dentist will remove the decayed tooth tissue and replace it with a filling mineral.
In more severe cases, you might need to have a root canal treatment performed, which involves removing inflamed nerves from the deeper layers of the tooth. If the decay is so severe that the tooth cannot be saved, then it might need to be extracted. In this case, your dentist might replace your tooth with a dental implant or prosthetic bridge.
The most important factor in preventing tooth decay is to practice good oral hygiene. Although we know the importance of consistently flossing, studies show that a large portion of U.S. adults either floss sporadically or not at all.
Brushing your teeth is not enough to prevent tooth decay as a regular toothbrush cannot reach the tight spaces in-between teeth. These tight spaces make for the ideal conditions for plaque build-up. As such, make sure to make flossing a regular part of your oral hygiene routine.
Another factor that can help you prevent tooth decay is keeping your enamel strong. In the first place, this involves preserving it as much as possible. To do this, avoid habits that weaken your enamel, such as brushing your teeth aggressively, consuming too much sugar that plaque bacteria feed on, and grinding your teeth.
You can also strengthen your enamel by using fluoride-containing products. You can brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste or use a fluoride mouth rinse. Your dentist can also offer you a professional fluoride treatment.
We all know the dangers of smoking. However, it’s worth repeating that smoking is damaging to your dental health. One of the reasons smoking is damaging to your oral health is because it reduces salivary flow. A dry mouth increases how much plaque bacteria form in your mouth, which increases your risk of tooth decay.
If you experience any tooth sensitivity or pain, then it’s important to see your dentist as soon as possible. Although some cavities can take years to form, others may do so at a much faster rate. As such, try to see your dentist for check-ups twice a year — even if you don’t experience any symptoms. At your dental appointments, you can also ask your dentist for tips on creating the best oral hygiene routine for you.
Rotten teeth must be diagnosed and treated immediately in order to prevent further complications.
If you experience symptoms of tooth decay, such as pain, sensitivity, or discoloration, then make an appointment to see your dentist as soon as possible.
If you do not experience any symptoms, then twice-yearly dental screenings — combined with proper brushing and flossing habits — may be enough to stave off tooth decay.
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