Crash Course in Cavities

At South Valley Pediatric Dentistry we get a lot of questions about cavities. As the most common type of dental decay, cavities (and the fillings that fix them) can concern parents and children alike, but familiarizing yourself with what cavities are, where they come from and how to prevent and treat them can help. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions and answers about cavities.

What even is a cavity?
Cavities are areas where bacteria has eaten away at the tooth and created a hole in the tooth’s surface. At first, cavities are invisible to an untrained eye, and they may not hurt, so patients are often unaware of the damage until cavities have gotten big enough to see and/or cause pain. Early detection and treatment can help patients avoid more expensive dental work, prevent dental pain and save damaged teeth, which is why we encourage regular dental check-ups. Dentists have the training and expertise to identify cavities before they cause serious long-term problems.

How did my child get a cavity?
Cavities form when bacteria in the mouth feed off of sugar (or other carbohydrates) and produce acid. Over time, the acid wears away parts of the tooth, forming cavities. Risk factors for cavities include failing to brush or floss regularly, missing parts of the mouth (such as the hard-to-reach back molars), and eating excessive sticky, sugary foods. Weak enamel (the protective outer layer of a tooth) can also contribute to frequent cavities, which sometimes means you get cavities regardless of good dental hygiene. When weak enamel or other genetic or health-related factors increase the risk of cavities, proper preventative measures (such as semiannual cleanings) and early treatment of cavities can help protect the existing teeth.

How can I keep my child from getting cavities?
Good dental hygiene at home is your first defense against cavities. Thoroughly brush your child’s teeth with a soft bristle brush twice a day. You don’t need to brush very hard to remove the food particles that cause cavities. In fact, scrubbing too hard can wear away your child’s enamel and cause additional dental problems. However, you do need to make sure you brush everywhere, especially the back teeth, where the majority of chewing occurs. In addition to brushing, flossing between teeth can prevent cavities in those areas where the toothbrush doesn’t reach, so most dentists recommend flossing at least once a day.

Regularly visiting your dentist can also help prevent cavities, which is why the American Dental Association recommends a professional cleaning and exam every six months. Not only will the dentist identify any cavities which have already begun to form, but the assistants or hygienists will also deep-clean your child’s teeth and sometimes apply a fluoride varnish, which makes teeth more resistant to cavities and decay.

How do you treat cavities?
A number of different treatment options exist to fix cavities. Your dentist will recommend the treatment he thinks is best for your particular case. The most common treatments used for cavities are fillings. Fillings are usually done using a local anesthetic to prevent the patient from feeling pain during treatment. Once the patient is numb the dentist will clean out the cavity to prevent further infection and then fill it with either a white (composite) compound or a silver (amalgam) compound.

Dentists use fillings to treat mild to moderate cavities. When a single tooth has multiple serious cavities, however, the dentist may recommend a crown – a silver or white covering fitted over the entire tooth. Crowns protect the structure of the tooth and prevent further decay.

Depending on the age, comfort level and behavior of your child, a dentist may recommend using nitrous oxide (commonly known as laughing gas) in combination with either of these treatments to make the patient feel more at ease. Additionally, pediatric dentists, like those at South Valley Pediatric Dentistry, often use sedation methods to calm patients with high anxiety, very young patients, and/or patients with extensive treatment needs. I will discuss the three main sedation methods we use at South Valley Pediatric Dentistry in our next blog post.

Don’t Panic!
Cavities are one of those things that almost everyone will have in their lifetime. But by understanding their causes, regularly brushing and flossing and having frequent dental check-ups, your chances for avoiding cavities are far greater. If and when your child does get a cavity, the Dental team at South Valley Pediatric Dentistry has all the tools and techniques needed to fix them in the most comfortable and pain-free way possible!

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