Cavities - Those Little Devils

When a dentist mentions "dental caries," they are referring to cavities. Cavities can be painful and can lead to greater problems down the line if left untreated. The best method of avoiding pain and expensive procedures is the prevention of cavities through proper oral hygiene and regular dental checkups

What Are Cavities?

In the simplest terms, a cavity is a hole in the tooth. This hole is created by acids generated by sugar-eating bacteria. Sugars from food and drinks feed these bacteria, which then produce acids that eat away at a tooth's protective coating (the enamel). Eventually, this process can continue all the way to the tooth's root (the pulp). Compounds in saliva fight against this damage, as well as fluoride, found in treated water and toothpaste.

Cavities can affect children of all ages. For babies, sugars from formula or even breast milk can collect on teeth and cause cavities (often referred to as "baby bottle tooth decay"). For toddlers, sipping juice throughout the day bathes teeth in cavity-causing sugar for hours on end, which can quickly damage delicate teeth. Snacks high in starch and sugars are major culprits of cavities for older children and teens, including sodas, sports drinks, and candies.

How to Prevent Cavities

Prevention is the best way to maintain good oral health. For all ages, brushing twice each day and flossing daily is the best form of prevention, along with visits to a pediatric dentist every six months. Putting babies to bed with only water helps prevent early childhood cavities, and avoiding giving sippy cups with juice throughout the day is helpful for toddlers. Chewing Xylitol gum has been shown to reduce cavities in older children and teens, but should never be given to babies or toddlers as this presents a choking hazard.

Another effective form of prevention is called sealants. Sometimes, grooves in teeth can be too small to brush effectively, creating the perfect breeding grounds for cavity-causing bacteria. In these cases, a pediatric dentist can apply a sealant, a durable plastic substance that fills in these grooves and protects at-risk teeth from developing cavities. The dentist may also apply fluoride treatments and recommend ADA-approved fluoride toothpaste.

Treating Cavities

Once a cavity forms, it must be treated promptly by a pediatric dentist. Fluoride treatments may be sufficient for very early cases, although fillings are commonly required. A filling involves cleaning out any decay, and filling up the hole with a substance such as porcelain or other composites under local anesthesia. More advanced cavities may require a root canal, otherwise known as "pulp therapy." When the root or pulp of the tooth is infected, medication is used to clear away the infection, and the pulp is replaced with a filling.

Active prevention of cavities is the best way to promote oral health for growing children. Building proper brushing and flossing habits and with keeping up with regular checkups with a pediatric dentist can help minimize the risk of developing cavities in baby teeth and permanent teeth.