Tooth Decay (Dental Caries): Cause, Symptoms, Prevention
Whiles waiting impatiently for the Kumasi bound bus to get full, a young lad popped his head into the bus with a very serious demeanour and a smile riddled with gum disease and tooth decay. He began to peddle his wares, or should I say “ware” – a small bottle of powder that cures everything from headaches to the conflict in the middle east. I hardly paid him any attention as I was busily engrossed in my new comic book.
‘Can your powder cure the hole in my tooth,’ a loud lady in the adjacent aisle bellowed in a moment of dramatic irony. Her voice dragged my dreamy soul back into the bus. She proceeded to explain that the pain woke her up at night and had deprived her of her usual cup of iced water which now gave her a shocking jolt of pain whenever she took a sip.
As if the spirits of his ancestors had descended on him, the young man excitedly began listing a litany of wonderful cures his magic powder could bring on any condition in the mouth. Anything from halitosis to teeth discolouration.
I was alarmed at the sales he made. Nevertheless, I could not blame the passengers for being this gullible; after all, there is a low level of oral health awareness in Ghana. When it comes to toothache nobody in their right senses would refuse a cheap and quick cure, coupled with how intensely terrifying a visit to the dentist is perceived to be.
What are dental caries/tooth decay?
Tooth decay, also known as dental caries or cavities, is a breakdown of teeth due to acids made by bacteria.
Tooth decay or dental caries is one of the commonest causes of toothache. It has a very bad reputation for causing serious tooth pain as well as discolouration and breaking (fracture) of the teeth. Albeit, entirely preventable and easy to treat if you see your dentist as early as possible.
What causes tooth decay/dental caries?
It comes about when germs in the mouth eat particles from the meal we have had and produce an acid. This acid destroys the tooth gradually, starting with a pinhole and keeps expanding and going deeper into the tooth.
Fact or myth: You can’t get tooth decay if you don’t take any sweets
Some adults will swear by heaven and earth that they do not eat toffees or any sweets yet they get caries. Some parents insist they monitor their children’s diet strictly but are still burdened by tooth decay. The truth is that any carbohydrate meal or reducible sugar can cause tooth decay. So syrup medications, sweet potatoes, bread, rice and even yam can cause caries. Any meal that has reducible sugars left in the mouth for long periods or snacking within short intervals can predispose one acquiring tooth decay if the mouth is not cleaned properly and regularly after meals.
What are the symptoms of tooth decay/dental caries?
The symptoms and of dental caries differ, depending on their extent and location. When tooth decay is just beginning, you may not have any symptoms at all. As the decay gets larger, it may cause symptoms and sign such as:
- Tooth sensitivity (Mild to sharp pain when eating or drinking something sweet, hot or cold)
- Visible holes or pits in your teeth
- Brown, black or white staining on any surface of a tooth
- Pain when you bite down
Tooth decay can progress from the hard tissues of your tooth to the living part of the tooth where the nerves and blood vessels reside. It is at this point that you begin to experience unbearable pain.
If it’s not treated an abscess can form at the roots and spreads through the potential spaces in the mouth to the head and neck region. At this point, swelling may be seen in the jaw at the affected side or in severe cases on both sides resulting in an inability to swallow since the tongue is propped against the palate this is what we describe as Ludwig’s angina.
If the affected tooth is in the upper jaw the abscess can spread to the eye socket on that side causing orbital cellulitis. It can also spread up into the brain resulting in death.
Yes! Dental caries can kill and it does kill. Quite a number of people lose their lives annually and needlessly because of this very preventable condition.
How can tooth decay/dental caries be prevented?
To prevent dental caries, you should follow these simple yet effective methods:
- Brush at least two times a day with a fluoride-containing toothpaste
- Rinse the mouth with an ample amount of water after every meal
- Floss regularly
- Lactating mothers should not leave breast milk or feeding bottles in the mouth of their toddlers to sleep with
- See your dentist at least every 6 months for screening
- Get a cleaning done every 6 months
Even when your mouth feels fine, it is important to have regular dental check-ups and cleanings. You may not be aware that a cavity is forming. Make it a point to visit your dentist every six months. However, if you experience a toothache or see a hole in your tooth, visit your dentist as soon as possible. The earlier you see your dentist, the cheaper the cost of management.