Summary

  • Tooth decay is a diet-related disease. 
  • It is caused by the bacteria in your mouth converting sugar into energy and producing acid as a waste product.
  • Tooth decay can start as a white or dark spot on your tooth and develop into a hole.
  • The saliva in your mouth helps protect against tooth decay, and can repair tooth decay in its early stages.
  • If you have a dry mouth (for example due to dehydration, some medical conditions, or using certain medications or drugs) your risk of developing tooth decay is greater.
  • You can prevent tooth decay by eating a healthy diet, drinking plenty of tap water instead of sugary drinks, brushing your teeth twice a day using a fluoride toothpaste, and flossing.
  • Your dentist can treat tooth decay too. If you visit your dentist regularly (once or twice a year) you can discover tooth decay early before it needs a filling.
     

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay (otherwise known as dental caries) is a common diet-related disease that leads to the loss of mineral from adult and baby teeth. In its early stages it can appear as a white or dark spot on the tooth, but as more mineral is lost a cavity or hole may appear. 

Further mineral loss may lead to the cavity extending into the centre of the tooth (the pulp), which may lead to toothache.

How tooth decay occurs

Many bacteria live in your mouth and on your teeth in the dental plaque. These bacteria use the sugars in the food you eat as the energy they need to live.

In converting sugar to energy, the bacteria in your mouth produce acid as a waste product. This acid dissolves the crystals of your teeth and causes mineral loss, which can lead to signs of tooth decay such as white spots and cavities. 

Your saliva works to prevent tooth decay from occurring. It washes sugar out of your mouth and into your stomach, stops acid from causing damage, fights bacteria and can repair the early stages of tooth decay by repairing tooth mineral. 

If the amount of acid from the bacteria on your teeth outweighs the protective effect of your saliva, then tooth decay will occur.

Prevention of tooth decay

Tooth decay can be prevented by:

  • eating a healthy well balanced diet
    • reduce how often you eat sugary foods or have sugary drinks
    • limit sugar intake to mealtimes
    • drink tap water (containing fluoride) rather than soft drink or juice
  • brushing twice a day and flossing – good oral hygiene will reduce the harmful bacteria
  • using toothpaste containing fluoride and drinking fluoridated tap water – fluoride protects the teeth against acid
  • chewing sugar-free chewing gum after meals to increase saliva flow – saliva is very important for protecting your teeth from decay
  • staying well hydrated as this improves your saliva – remember that dehydration can reduce the amount of saliva you make so drink lots of tap water
  • if recommended by your dentist, having the deep grooves on your teeth sealed with dental material called a fissure sealant – this has been shown to prevent tooth decay in the biting surfaces of your teeth
  • avoiding putting any sweet drinks (such as juice, soft drink or cordial) in babies' bottles or toddlers’ sippy cups.

Saliva helps prevent tooth decay

Saliva is a powerful natural defense against tooth decay. It can wash sugar out of your mouth into the stomach, stop the damaging effect of acid made by bacteria, fight bacteria and reverse the early stages of tooth decay by repairing tooth mineral. A reduced flow of saliva (dry mouth) can increase your risk of tooth decay.

Causes of dry mouth might include:

  • medications – some medicines and drugs  can affect your salivary glands and reduce the amount of saliva that they can make, leading to a dry mouth
  • dehydration – working in a dry environment and not drinking water often enough can lead to a decrease in saliva production. Additionally, high intake of caffeine found in coffee, tea, chocolate and cola drinks can reduce fluid levels in the body and reduce saliva
  • diseases or conditions that affect the saliva glands– for example Sjogren's syndrome

If you have a constant dry mouth, consult your dentist to find the cause.

Treatment of tooth decay

Early tooth decay is reversible. Saliva can deposit mineral back onto the tooth surface if you improve your diet and oral hygiene. Your dentist can treat early areas of tooth decay with fluoride or other products to help with this process. Regular visits to the dentist (at least once or twice a year) are important so that decay can be identified at this early stage when a filling can be avoided.  

In cases of more advanced tooth decay a hole may have formed that may require a ‘filling’. Your dentist will remove the damaged part of the tooth and repair the tooth with a filling material. It is important to have this done early to help the strength of the tooth and prevent bacteria from damaging its centre.

If the tooth has been aching then the tooth decay may have reached the centre of the tooth and the nerve inside in the tooth may require treatment (root canal). 

It is very important to listen to your dentist’s advice on how to eliminate the cause of your tooth decay. Just filling a hole will not stop tooth decay from occurring in other areas of the mouth or around the new filling. If tooth decay has been found by your dentist, focus on the things that you can do to prevent it.

Where to get help

  • Your maternal and child health nurse
  • Community dental clinics:
    • To find your local clinic Tel. 1300 360 054 or search by postcode.
    • The Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne:
    • General enquiries or to make an appointment Tel. (03) 9341 1000 or 1800 833 039 outside Melbourne metro 8.30 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday
    • Dental emergencies Tel. 1300 360 054 8.30 am to 9.15 pm, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 9.15 pm, weekends and public holidays
  • Your private dental clinic:
  • Orthodontist
  • Psychologist, to help with stress management
  • Physiotherapist

More information

Mouth and teeth

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Australian Dental Association Victorian Branch

Last updated: June 2017

Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.