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Cavities: What are they & how do they work?

Cavities, in the context of dentistry, refer to the decayed areas of teeth caused by a combination of bacteria, acid, food particles, and saliva. The process leading to the formation of cavities is known as dental caries. It occurs when foods containing carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are left on the teeth. Such foods include milk, soda, raisins, candy, cake, fruit juices, cereals, and bread proteins etc. Bacteria that normally live in the mouth change these foods, making acids. The combination of bacteria, food, acid, and saliva form a substance called plaque that sticks to the teeth. Over time, the acids made by the bacteria eat away at the tooth enamel, causing cavities.

Here's a breakdown of how cavities develop:

Plaque Formation:

  • Bacteria naturally reside in the mouth, forming a sticky film called plaque on teeth. Plaque contains acids produced by these bacteria.

Acid Production:

  • When you consume carbohydrates, such as sugars and starches, the bacteria in plaque break them down into acids. These acids can demineralize the enamel, which is the outer protective layer of the teeth.


  • The acids dissolve minerals from the enamel, creating weak spots or microscopic holes. This process is known as demineralization. Enamel demineralization is a reversible process, and minerals from saliva and fluoride can help remineralize the enamel, making it stronger.

Cavity Formation:

  • If demineralization continues and the enamel is not given a chance to remineralize, the weakened areas may progress into cavities. At this stage, the damage is irreversible, and the enamel is permanently damaged.

Spread to Dentin:

  • If left untreated, the decay can progress beyond the enamel and reach the dentin, a softer layer beneath the enamel. Dentin is more susceptible to decay, and the process accelerates once it reaches this layer.

Pulp Involvement:

  • If the decay continues to advance, it can reach the pulp—the innermost part of the tooth containing nerves and blood vessels. This can lead to toothaches and more severe dental problems.

Prevention and Treatment:

  • Oral Hygiene: Regular brushing, flossing, and mouthwash use help remove plaque and prevent the buildup of harmful bacteria.

  • Dietary Habits: Limiting the intake of sugary and acidic foods reduces the availability of substrates for bacterial acid production. Particularly sticki candy, crackers, and chips.

  • Fluoride: Fluoride strengthens enamel and aids in remineralization. It's often present in toothpaste, mouthwash, and drinking water.

  • Regular Dental Checkups: Professional cleanings and early detection of cavities during dental visits are crucial for preventive care.

Understanding the process of cavity formation underscores the importance of good oral hygiene practices and regular dental checkups for maintaining optimal oral health.

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