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Tooth Decay

Clinical Overview


Reviewed by: Dr. Kristen Dority

Tooth decay results when enough of the hard enamel covering a tooth and the dentin layer below dissolves to form a cavity. Cavities are also known as dental caries (a term derived from the Latin word for rot). Tooth decay has always been present in history, but it reached pandemic proportions with the establishment of sugar plantations in the New World during the 1700s and subsequent sugar beet production in Europe beginning in the 1800s. Bacteria from food particles remaining on the teeth turns into the sticky substance known as plaque. (Please refer to the condition listing for cavities for more information on how cavities form.) Carbohydrate foods containing sugars then feed the bacteria in the tooth plaque. Although cavities generally take months or years to form, regular brushing and flossing minimizes the incidence. When not quickly brushed away, the bacteria in the plaque produces acids that then begin to dissolve tooth enamel and the dentin below. Once decay reaches the dentin, deterioration can move rapidly to the pulp of the tooth where blood vessels and nerves are located. If left untreated, the living cells in the pulp of the tooth will eventually die.

Last updated: May-03-07

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