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What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay is the breakdown of tooth substance due to acids produced by certain bacteria. This gradually leads to cavities inside of the teeth and if left untreated can reach the dental pulp, which causes excruciating pain, and it eventually destroys the tooth.

Decay can be undetected by the patient until the very last stages so it requires an early diagnosis in order to save as much healthy tooth substance as possible.

Symptoms of tooth decay

  • Someone experiencing tooth decay is likely not aware of it as, most of the times, it does not cause symptoms, unless it’s very extensive.
  • Sensitivity to cold, sweet or acidic food may be experienced, as decay exposes the dentine.
  • Broken or chipped teeth, when the enamel caves inside of the decayed dentine.
  • Bad breath
  • Unpleasant taste in the mouth
  • Tooth discolouration – an initial lesion appears as chalky white but then it progresses into brown and eventually turns into a cavity.
  • Gum inflammation

Speak to a dental professional today

Our dentists have all the experience, skill and technology required to diagnose and treat tooth decay. Arrange an appointment with our dental team at our central London dental clinic, situated on the prestigious Wimpole Street.

What causes tooth decay?

Tooth decay is the result of acids produced by specific bacteria when they breakdown the carbohydrates from the diet. The acids produce mineral breakdown and if the saliva cannot neutralise it, it will lead to cavitation. Simple sugars are a primary energy source for these bacteria so a diet rich in sugars is a major risk factor. Tooth decay is also accelerated by inadequate oral hygiene as dental plaque will make it easier for the bacteria to stick to the teeth.

Prevent the onset of tooth decay with an optimised oral hygiene routine practised at home and complemented by regular professional teeth cleaning appointments with your dental hygienist in addition to six monthly check-ups with your dentist. Ensure that you know the correct brushing and flossing techniques and familiarise yourself with the best dental care products available. Ask a member of our expert team in clinic if you have any questions. Rethink your mealtime choices to reduce the intake of simple carbs.

How to treat tooth decay

  • If on its initial stage, tooth decay can be arrested as a consequence of improvements in diet and oral hygiene
  • As it doesn’t cause much symptoms, decay is one of the reasons your dentist takes regular radiographs of your teeth, so that the lesions can be detected on an early stage.
  • Your dentist may consider the use of a high-fluoride preparation to re-mineralise your teeth if the tooth decay is mild
  • If a cavity has already been formed and well into the dentine, decay should be removed, the tooth cleaned and the cavity then sealed with a tooth filling. It is essential that this procedure is done using high magnification and rubber dam.
  • If the decay is extensive enough, ceramic inlay/onlay may be recommended to reconstruct the tooth.
  • If left undiagnosed or untreated, deep-reaching tooth decay may irreversibly affect the pulp (nerve) of the tooth, which would then require root canal treatment. Root canal treated teeth will often then need cusp coverage, meaning the tooth should be restored with an overlay or a crown.
  • Without dental intervention, tooth decay can ultimately lead to the total and irreversible dissolution of the tooth, which would then need to be extracted.

Visiting your dentist on a regular basis ensures that tooth decay does not require complex intervention so don’t miss your routine examinations.

Prof Christian Mehl

Written by: Prof Dr Christian Mehl

A certified implantologist and prosthodontics specialist with 20+ years in dentistry, I conduct clinical research, teach at University of Kiel, and contribute to implant system development. Recipient of the Camlog Research Award, I frequently publish and deliver global lectures.

Clinically reviewed by: Dr Raul Costa

When did we last update this page?

Our expert team continually update and research the latest news and techniques in dentistry, as such we regularly update our pages and have these clinically reviewed.

Current Version

July 21st 2023

  • Added “when did we last update this page” and author biography to the page.

Written by: Prof Dr Christian Mehl

Medically reviewed by: Dr Raul Costa

Previous Versions

October 2nd 2022

  • Page redesigned and updated to reflect change in address.

Written by: Prof Dr Christian Mehl

Medically reviewed by: Dr Raul Costa

30th August 2021

  • Original content created.

Written by: Prof Dr Christian Mehl

Medically reviewed by: Dr Raul Costa

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