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Many people wonder what causes cavities; they want to know how to avoid this common problem that can lead to discomfort, pain and in some cases, tooth loss. Cavities result from tooth decay, a process involving multiple stages. According to the Mayo Clinic, it begins when bacteria inflicts damage on the hard surface of the teeth known as enamel, and the destruction will spread into the deeper layers if left untreated. Regular care of your teeth and a healthy diet can be enormously helpful in warding off this decay of your pearly whites.

Stages of Cavity Formation

The first phase of dental decay involves plaque formation. Some strains of naturally occurring bacteria in your mouth thrive when you consume foods and drinks that contain sugar. When sugars aren’t cleaned off your teeth, bacteria feed on them and produce acids. The acids then combine with bacteria, food particles and saliva to form plaque, a sticky film that covers the teeth.

Once plaque forms, the acids wear away the enamel, which is the tooth’s hard outer surface. These tiny openings in the enamel represent the first stage of cavities. After this happens, the acid and bacteria attack the next layer of the tooth, a softer substance called dentin.

Bacteria and plaque continue their destructive march through the tooth until the inner tooth material, or pulp, is affected. At this advanced stage, the pulp becomes irritated, and the bone that supports the tooth may become involved as well. When the decay reaches this point, you will experience sensitivity, toothache and pain upon biting. If the bacterial invasion causes your body to send out white blood cells to fight it, the result may be tooth abscess, and a root canal may be necessary.

Cavity Prevention Methods

Being diligent and consistent in oral care can go a long way toward helping you avoid cavities. This includes brushing at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day. If you are unable to brush after a meal, you can rinse your mouth thoroughly with water.

Aside from oral care, several dietary practices can guard against cavities. Eating tooth-healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese and other dairy products, will help. Try your best to limit sweetened beverages, as the sugar they contain will fuel the cavity-forming process. Avoid frequent snacking and drinks other than water throughout the day to prevent putting your teeth under even more assault from the acids created by the bacteria in your mouth.

When to See a Dentist

Since no symptoms are associated with the early stages of cavity formation, you should see a dentist at least twice a year for a cleaning and examination. It is important to find trouble spots and stop them in their tracks before they develop into a major problem. Also, if you are experiencing tooth pain or sensitivity, make a dental appointment as soon as possible.

Remember that what causes cavities more than anything else is a lack of oral care, and eating unhealthy foods. While tooth decay can have very serious consequences, practicing these preventive measures can reduce the risk of it happening. In the event you need special treatment for cavity prevention, your dentist can advise you on what to do to maintain the health of your teeth.