Author: Jessica Zhang
Editors: Ivan Fang and Peggy Yang
Artist: Lalita Ma
Have you ever experienced the pain of eating with tooth decay? Tooth decay, or dental cavities, are caused by certain bacteria living in dental plaque. They damage the teeth by releasing acids from the food you consume. This process is divided into five stages and they demonstrate the importance of protecting your teeth.
Let’s imagine decaying teeth as a war between your teeth and bacteria. The first stage is called demineralization. In this stage, bacteria use their “cannon” acid to attack the gate wall of your teeth, the enamel, the outer layer of your tooth, and the strongest tissue in your body. Calcium is the main component of enamel; the bacteria’s acid can reduce the amount of the mineral, causing white spots to form on your teeth. Brushing teeth regularly and flossing is usually enough to clean these white spots.
When continuous attacks from the bacteria finally penetrate the enamel, it moves onto the second stage of tooth decay, where the enamel starts eroding. When this occurs, white spots will usually turn brown or yellow, with small holes called cavities beginning to form. At this point, a visit to the dentist will be required to fill in the holes, ensuring that further damage is prevented.
If the erosion is ignored, the holes will deepen, and the bacteria will reach the dentin (the tissue under the enamel). Dentin contains tubes that lead to the tooth's nerves, just like roads that lead to the central castle, so you may begin to experience pain or sensitivity when eating or drinking due to the now exposed nerves. Furthermore, dentin is more vulnerable than enamel and will be eroded more quickly by bacteria.
In the fourth stage, the bacteria reach the "castle"—the pulp. Once the bacteria control the pulp, it will begin to swell, and pressure accumulates. This causes tooth pain, which is worsened when it reaches nerves and blood vessels.
The final stage is abscess. Bacteria will start to destroy the castle, resulting in inflammation. This inflammation may lead to a buildup of pus, and these abscesses will cause severe pain that can spread to the gums, jaw, and face, as well as a possibility of a fever. The best treatment option at this stage may be to remove the tooth entirely.
This war between your teeth and bacteria may sound horrible, but most tooth decay can be suppressed at the first or second stage if you pay enough attention and take proper action. For example, it is preferred to use an electric toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste to brush your teeth twice a day. In addition, you can floss your teeth regularly to remove dental plaque. Visiting the dentist twice a year and undergoing professional cleanings is essential in maintaining healthy teeth as well as removing any plaque build-ups which can prevent bacterial growth. With these measures in place, you can smile confidently!
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Healthline Media, 30 July 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/dental-and-oral-