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Home > Dental Conditions > Cavities  > Cavities Symptoms & Causes > Dental Cavities Are An Age Old Problem
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Dental Cavities: An Age-Old Problem

Cavities have existed for thousands of years.

When we visit the dentist, the question foremost on our minds after our dental exam is whether or not we have any cavities. Dental cavities, also known as caries, have plagued mankind for thousands of years. In fact, fossilized remains of men and women from the Iron Age discovered in Warwickshire, England, revealed a cavity rate of 8 percent. The prevalence of dental cavities has been steadily increasing for the last four centuries in industrialized nations due to a modern diet consisting of highly processed, sugar-containing foods. Despite a recent dip in cavities as a result of fluoride, they continue to be a problem for us today.

Dental cavities are an infection caused by a combination of carbohydrate-containing foods and bacteria that live in our mouths. The bacteria are contained in a film of plaque that continuously forms on and around our teeth. Although there are many different types of bacteria in our mouths, only a few are associated with cavities. Some of the most common include streptococcus mutans, lactobacillus casei and acidophilus, and actinomyces naeslundii.

When these bacteria find carbohydrates, they metabolize them and produce acid. Every exposure to these foods allows an acid attack on the teeth for about 20 minutes! As the cavity progresses, it invades the softer dentin directly beneath the enamel, and encroaches on the nerve and blood supply of the tooth contained within the pulp.

Cavities attack the teeth in two main ways. The first is through the pits and fissures, which are grooves that are visible on the top biting surfaces of the back teeth (molars and premolars). The pits and fissures are thin areas of enamel that contain recesses that can trap food and plaque to form a cavity. The cavity starts from a small point of attack, and spreads widely to invade the underlying dentin. The second route of acid attack is from a smooth surface, which is between or on the front or back of teeth. In a smooth-surface cavity, the acid must travel through the entire thickness of the enamel. The area of attack is generally wide, and comes to point or converges as it enters the deeper layers of the tooth.

Whether a tooth has been damaged through the pits and fissures or smooth surfaces, it will need to be repaired with a dental filling. If the cavity is allowed to progress without being treated, the nerve within the tooth will ultimately become infected, and the tooth will then require either root canal or surgical tooth extraction.

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