Dental Caries

Dental caries

Dental caries – Classification and external resources

Destruction of a tooth by cervical decay from dental caries. This type of decay is also known as root decay.

Dental caries, also known as tooth decay or cavity, is a disease wherein bacterial processes damage hard tooth structure (enamel, dentin, and cementum). These tissues progressively break down, producing dental caries (cavities, holes in the teeth). Two groups of bacteria are responsible for initiating caries: Streptococcus mutans andLactobacillus. If left untreated, the disease can lead to pain, tooth loss, infection, and, in severe cases, death. Today, caries remains one of the most common diseases throughout the world. Cariology is the study of dental caries.

The presentation of caries is highly variable; however, the risk factors and stages of development are similar. Initially, it may appear as a small chalky area that may eventually develop into a large cavitation. Sometimes caries may be directly visible, however other methods of detection such as radiographs are used for less visible areas of teeth and to judge the extent of destruction.

Tooth decay is caused by specific types of acid-producing bacteria that cause damage in the presence of fermentable carbohydrates such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose. The mineral content of teeth is sensitive to increases in acidity from the production of lactic acid. Specifically, a tooth (which is primarily mineral in content) is in a constant state of back-and-forth demineralization and remineralization between the tooth and surrounding saliva. When the pH at the surface of the tooth drops below 5.5, demineralization proceeds faster than remineralization (meaning that there is a net loss of mineral structure on the tooth’s surface). This results in the ensuing decay. Depending on the extent of tooth destruction, various treatments can be used to restore teeth to proper form, function, and aesthetics, but there is no known method to regenerate large amounts of tooth structure, though stem cell related research suggests one possibility. Instead, dental health organizations advocate preventive and prophylactic measures, such as regular oral hygiene and dietary modifications, to avoid dental caries.

The pits and fissures of teeth provide a location for caries formation.

Pit and fissure caries (class I dental caries)
Pits and fissures are anatomic landmarks on a tooth where the enamel folds inward. Fissures are formed during the development of grooves but the enamel in the area is not fully fused. As a result, a deep linear depression forms in the enamel’s surface structure, which forms a location for dental caries to develop and flourish. Fissures are mostly located on the occlusal (chewing) surfaces of posterior (rear) teeth and palatal surfaces of maxillary anterior (front) teeth. Pits are small, pinpoint depressions that are most commonly found at the ends or cross-sections of grooves. In particular, buccal pits are found on the facial surfaces of molars. For all types of pits and fissures, the deep infolding of enamel makes oral hygiene along the surfaces difficult, allowing dental caries to develop more commonly in these areas.

The occlusal surfaces of teeth represent 12.5% of all tooth surfaces but are the location of over 50% of all dental caries.[11] Among children, pit and fissure caries represent 90% of all dental caries.[12] Pit and fissure caries can sometimes be difficult to detect. As the decay progresses, caries in enamel nearest the surface of the tooth spreads gradually deeper. Once the caries reaches the dentin at the dentino-enamel junction (DEJ), the decay quickly spreads laterally. Within the dentin, the decay follows a triangle pattern that points to the tooth’s pulp. This pattern of decay is typically described as two triangles (one triangle in enamel, and another in dentin) with their bases conjoined to each other at the DEJ. This base-to-base pattern is typical of pit and fissure caries, unlike smooth-surface caries (where base and apex of the two triangles join).

Smooth-surface caries

There are three types of smooth-surface caries. Proximal caries, also called interproximal caries, form on the smooth surfaces between adjacent teeth. Root caries form on the root surfaces of teeth. The third type of smooth-surface caries occur on any other smooth tooth surface.


In this radiograph, the dark spots in the adjacent teeth show proximal caries.

Proximal caries are the most difficult type to detect. Frequently, this type of caries cannot be detected visually or manually with a dental explorer. Proximal caries form cervically (toward the roots of a tooth) just under the contact between two teeth. As a result, radiographs are needed for early discovery of proximal caries. Under Black’s classification system, proximal caries on posterior teeth (premolars and molars) are designated as Class II caries. Proximal caries on anterior teeth (incisors and canines) are indicated as Class III if the incisal edge (chewing surface) is not included and Class IV if the incisal edge is included.

Root caries, which are sometimes described as a category of smooth-surfaces caries, are the third most common type of caries and usually occur when the root surfaces have been exposed due to gingival recession. When the gingiva is healthy, root caries is unlikely to develop because the root surfaces are not as accessible to bacterial plaque. The root surface is more vulnerable to the demineralization process than enamel because cementum begins to demineralize at 6.7 pH, which is higher than enamel’s critical pH.[16] Regardless, it is easier to arrest the progression of root caries than enamel caries because roots have a greater reuptake of fluoride than enamel. Root caries are most likely to be found on facial surfaces, then interproximal surfaces, then lingual surfaces. Mandibular molars are the most common location to find root caries, followed by mandibular premolars, maxillary anteriors, maxillary posteriors, and mandibular anteriors.

Lesions on other smooth surfaces of teeth are also possible. Since these occur in all smooth surface areas of enamel except for interproximal areas, these types of caries are easily detected and are associated with high levels of plaque and diets promoting caries formation.[13] Under Black’s classification system, caries near the gingiva on the facial or lingual surfaces is designated Class V.[15] Class VI is reserved for caries confined to cusp tips on posterior teeth or incisal edges of anterior teeth.


Rampant caries.

In some instances, caries are described in other ways that might indicate the cause. “Baby bottle caries”, “early childhood caries”, or “baby bottle tooth decay” is a pattern of decay found in young children with their deciduous (baby) teeth. The teeth most likely affected are the maxillary anterior teeth, but all teeth can be affected. The name for this type of caries comes from the fact that the decay usually is a result of allowing children to fall asleep with sweetened liquids in their bottles or feeding children sweetened liquids multiple times during the day. Another pattern of decay is “rampant caries”, which signifies advanced or severe decay on multiple surfaces of many teeth.

Rampant caries may be seen in individuals with xerostomia, poor oral hygiene, stimulant use (due to drug-induced dry mouth), and/or large sugar intake. If rampant caries is a result of previous radiation to the head and neck, it may be described as radiation-induced caries. Problems can also be caused by the self destruction of roots and whole tooth resorption when new teeth erupt or later from unknown causes. Dr. Miller stated in 1887 that “Dental decay is chemico-parasitic process consisting of two stages, the decalcification of enamel, which results in its total destruction and the decalcification of dentin as a preliminary stage followed by dissolution of the softened residue.” In his hypothesis, Dr.Miller assigned essential roles to three factors:

  • Carbohydrate substrate.
  • Acid which caused dissolution of tooth minerals.
  • Oral micro organisms which produce acid and also cause proteolysis.

Rate of progression
Temporal descriptions can be applied to caries to indicate the progression rate and previous history. “Acute” signifies a quickly developing condition, whereas “chronic” describes a condition which has taken an extended time to develop where thousands of meals and snacks, many causing some acid demineralisation that is not remineralized and eventually results in cavities. Fluoride treatment can help recalcification of tooth enamel.

Recurrent caries, also described as secondary, are caries that appears at a location with a previous history of caries. This is frequently found on the margins of fillings and other dental restorations. On the other hand, incipient caries describes decay at a location that has not experienced previous decay. Arrested caries describes a lesion on a tooth which was previously demineralized but was remineralized before causing a cavitation. Using fluoride treatments can help with recalcification.

Affected hard tissue
Depending on which hard tissues are affected, it is possible to describe caries as involving enamel, dentin, or cementum. Early in its development, caries may affect only enamel. Once the extent of decay reaches the deeper layer of dentin, “dentinal caries” is used. Since cementum is the hard tissue that covers the roots of teeth, it is not often affected by decay unless the roots of teeth are exposed to the mouth. Although the term “cementum caries” may be used to describe the decay on roots of teeth, very rarely does caries affect the cementum alone. Roots have a very thin layer of cementum over a large layer of dentin, and thus most caries affecting cementum also affects dentin.

Signs and symptoms

The tip of a dental explorer, which is used for caries diagnosis.

A person experiencing caries may not be aware of the disease.[20] The earliest sign of a new carious lesion is the appearance of a chalky white spot on the surface of the tooth, indicating an area of demineralization of enamel. This is referred to as incipient decay. As the lesion continues to demineralize, it can turn brown but will eventually turn into a cavitation (“cavity”). Before the cavity forms, the process is reversible, but once a cavity forms, the lost tooth structure cannot be regenerated.[citation needed] A lesion which appears brown and shiny suggests dental caries were once present but the demineralization process has stopped, leaving a stain. A brown spot which is dull in appearance is probably a sign of active caries.

As the enamel and dentin are destroyed, the cavity becomes more noticeable. The affected areas of the tooth change color and become soft to the touch. Once the decay passes through enamel, the dentinal tubules, which have passages to the nerve of the tooth, become exposed and causes pain in the tooth. The pain may worsen with exposure to heat, cold, or sweet foods and drinks. Dental caries can also cause bad breath and foul tastes. In highly progressed cases, infection can spread from the tooth to the surrounding soft tissues. Complications such as cavernous sinus thrombosis and Ludwig’s angina can be life-threatening.

There are four main criteria required for caries formation: a tooth surface (enamel or dentin); caries-causing bacteria; fermentable carbohydrates (such as sucrose); and time. The caries process does not have an inevitable outcome, and different individuals will be susceptible to different degrees depending on the shape of their teeth, oral hygiene habits, and the buffering capacity of their saliva. Dental caries can occur on any surface of a tooth which is exposed to the oral cavity, but not the structures which are retained within the bone.

There are certain diseases and disorders affecting teeth which may leave an individual at a greater risk for caries. Amelogenesis imperfecta, which occurs between 1 in 718 and 1 in 14,000 individuals, is a disease in which the enamel does not fully form or forms in insufficient amounts and can fall off a tooth. In both cases, teeth may be left more vulnerable to decay because the enamel is not able to protect the tooth.

In most people, disorders or diseases affecting teeth are not the primary cause of dental caries. Ninety-six percent of tooth enamel is composed of minerals. These minerals, especially hydroxyapatite, will become soluble when exposed to acidic environments. Enamel begins to demineralize at a pH of 5.5. Dentin and cementum are more susceptible to caries than enamel because they have lower mineral content. Thus, when root surfaces of teeth are exposed from gingival recession or periodontal disease, caries can develop more readily. Even in a healthy oral environment, however, the tooth is susceptible to dental caries.

The anatomy of teeth may affect the likelihood of caries formation. Where the deep grooves of teeth are more numerous and exaggerated, pit and fissure caries are more likely to develop. Also, caries are more likely to develop when food is trapped between teeth.

A gram stain image of Streptococcus mutans.

The mouth contains a wide variety of oral bacteria, but only a few specific species of bacteria are believed to cause dental caries: Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacilli among them. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Actinomyces viscosus, Nocardia spp., and Streptococcus mutans are most closely associated with caries, particularly root caries. Bacteria collect around the teeth and gums in a sticky, creamy-coloured mass called plaque, which serves as a biofilm. Some sites collect plaque more commonly than others. The grooves on the biting surfaces of molar and premolar teeth provide microscopic retention, as does the point of contact between teeth. Plaque may also collect along the gingiva.

Fermentable carbohydrates
Bacteria in a person’s mouth convert glucose, fructose, and most commonly sucrose (table sugar) into acids such as lactic acid through a glycolytic process called fermentation. If left in contact with the tooth, these acids may cause demineralization, which is the dissolution of its mineral content. The process is dynamic, however, as remineralization can also occur if the acid is neutralized by saliva or mouthwash. Fluoride toothpaste or dental varnish may aid remineralization.[32] If demineralization continues over time, enough mineral content may be lost so that the soft organic material left behind disintegrates, forming a cavity or hole. The impact such sugars have on the progress of dental caries is called cariogenicity. Sucrose, although a bound glucose and fructose unit, is in fact more cariogenic than a mixture of equal parts of glucose and fructose. This is due to the bacteria utilising the energy in the saccharide bond between the glucose and fructose subunits. S.mutans adheres to the biofilm on the tooth by converting sucrose into an extremely adhesive substance called dextran polysaccharide by the enzyme dextransucranase.

The frequency of which teeth are exposed to cariogenic (acidic) environments affects the likelihood of caries development.After meals or snacks, the bacteria in the mouth metabolize sugar, resulting in an acidic by-product which decreases pH. As time progresses, the pH returns to normal due to the buffering capacity of saliva and the dissolved mineral content of tooth surfaces. During every exposure to the acidic environment, portions of the inorganic mineral content at the surface of teeth dissolves and can remain dissolved for two hours. Since teeth are vulnerable during these acidic periods, the development of dental caries relies heavily on the frequency of acid exposure.

The carious process can begin within days of a tooth erupting into the mouth if the diet is sufficiently rich in suitable carbohydrates. Evidence suggests that the introduction of fluoride treatments have slowed the process. Proximal caries take an average of four years to pass through enamel in permanent teeth. Because the cementum enveloping the root surface is not nearly as durable as the enamel encasing the crown, root caries tends to progress much more rapidly than decay on other surfaces. The progression and loss of mineralization on the root surface is 2.5 times faster than caries in enamel. In very severe cases where oral hygiene is very poor and where the diet is very rich in fermentable carbohydrates, caries may cause cavities within months of tooth eruption. This can occur, for example, when children continuously drink sugary drinks from baby bottles.

Other risk factors
Reduced saliva is associated with increased caries since the buffering capability of saliva is not present to counterbalance the acidic environment created by certain foods. As a result, medical conditions that reduce the amount of saliva produced by salivary glands, particularly the submandibular gland and parotid gland, are likely to lead to widespread tooth decay. Examples include Sjögren’s syndrome, diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus, and sarcoidosis. Medications, such as antihistamines and antidepressants, can also impair salivary flow. Stimulants, most notoriously methylamphetamine, also occlude the flow of saliva to an extreme degree. Abusers of stimulants tend to have poor oral hygiene.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, the active chemical substance in cannabis, also causes a nearly complete occlusion of salivation, known colloquially as “cotton mouth”. This, combined with heavy intake of heavily sugared drinks and much junk food among cannabis smokers leads to a large increase in the prevalence of caries. Moreover, sixty-three percent of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States list dry mouth as a known side effect. Radiation therapy of the head and neck may also damage the cells in salivary glands, increasing the likelihood of caries formation.

The use of tobacco may also increase the risk for caries formation. Some brands of smokeless tobacco contain high sugar content, increasing susceptibility to caries.Tobacco use is a significant risk factor for periodontal disease, which can cause the gingiva to recede. As the gingiva loses attachment to the teeth, the root surface becomes more visible in the mouth. If this occurs, root caries is a concern since the cementum covering the roots of teeth is more easily demineralized by acids than enamel.

Intrauterine and neonatal lead exposure promote tooth decay. Besides lead, all atoms with electrical charge and ionic radius similar to bivalent calcium, such as cadmium, mimic the calcium ion and therefore exposure may promote tooth decay.


The progression of pit and fissure caries resembles two triangles with their bases meeting along the junction of enamel and dentin.

Enamel is a highly mineralized acellular tissue, and caries act upon it through a chemical process brought on by the acidic environment produced by bacteria. As the bacteria consume the sugar and use it for their own energy, they produce lactic acid. The effects of this process include the demineralization of crystals in the enamel, caused by acids, over time until the bacteria physically penetrate the dentin.

Enamel rods, which are the basic unit of the enamel structure, run perpendicularly from the surface of the tooth to the dentin. Since demineralization of enamel by caries generally follows the direction of the enamel rods, the different triangular patterns between pit and fissure and smooth-surface caries develop in the enamel because the orientation of enamel rods are different in the two areas of the tooth.

As the enamel loses minerals, and dental caries progresses, the enamel develop several distinct zones, visible under a light microscope. From the deepest layer of the enamel to the enamel surface, the identified areas are the: translucent zone, dark zones, body of the lesion, and surface zone.

The translucent zone is the first visible sign of caries and coincides with a one to two percent loss of minerals. A slight remineralization of enamel occurs in the dark zone, which serves as an example of how the development of dental caries is an active process with alternating changes. The area of greatest demineralization and destruction is in the body of the lesion itself. The surface zone remains relatively mineralized and is present until the loss of tooth structure results in a cavitation.

Unlike enamel, the dentin reacts to the progression of dental caries. After tooth formation, the ameloblasts, which produce enamel, are destroyed once enamel formation is complete and thus cannot later regenerate enamel after its destruction. On the other hand, dentin is produced continuously throughout life by odontoblasts, which reside at the border between the pulp and dentin. Since odontoblasts are present, a stimulus, such as caries, can trigger a biologic response. These defense mechanisms include the formation of sclerotic and tertiary dentin.

In dentin from the deepest layer to the enamel, the distinct areas affected by caries are the translucent zone, the zone of destruction, and the zone of bacterial penetration. The translucent zone represents the advancing front of the carious process and is where the initial demineralization begins. The zones of bacterial penetration and destruction are the locations of invading bacteria and ultimately the decomposition of dentin.

The faster spread of caries through dentin creates this triangular appearance in smooth surface caries.

Sclerotic dentin
The structure of dentin is an arrangement of microscopic channels, called dentinal tubules, which radiate outward from the pulp chamber to the exterior cementum or enamel border.The diameter of the dentinal tubules is largest near the pulp (about 2.5 ?m) and smallest (about 900 nm) at the junction of dentin and enamel. The carious process continues through the dentinal tubules, which are responsible for the triangular patterns resulting from the progression of caries deep into the tooth. The tubules also allow caries to progress faster.

In response, the fluid inside the tubules bring immunoglobulins from the immune system to fight the bacterial infection. At the same time, there is an increase of mineralization of the surrounding tubules. This results in a constriction of the tubules, which is an attempt to slow the bacterial progression. In addition, as the acid from the bacteria demineralizes the hydroxyapatite crystals, calcium and phosphorus are released, allowing for the precipitation of more crystals which fall deeper into the dentinal tubule. These crystals form a barrier and slow the advancement of caries. After these protective responses, the dentin is considered sclerotic.

Fluids within dentinal tubules are believed to be the mechanism by which pain receptors are triggered within the pulp of the tooth. Since sclerotic dentin prevents the passage of such fluids, pain that would otherwise serve as a warning of the invading bacteria may not develop at first. Consequently, dental caries may progress for a long period of time without any sensitivity of the tooth, allowing for greater loss of tooth structure.

Tertiary dentin
In response to dental caries, there may be production of more dentin toward the direction of the pulp. This new dentin is referred to as tertiary dentin. Tertiary dentin is produced to protect the pulp for as long as possible from the advancing bacteria. As more tertiary dentin is produced, the size of the pulp decreases. This type of dentin has been subdivided according to the presence or absence of the original odontoblasts. If the odontoblasts survive long enough to react to the dental caries, then the dentin produced is called “reactionary” dentin. If the odontoblasts are killed, the dentin produced is called “reparative” dentin.

In the case of reparative dentin, other cells are needed to assume the role of the destroyed odontoblasts. Growth factors, especially TGF-?, are thought to initiate the production of reparative dentin by fibroblasts and mesenchymal cells of the pulp. Reparative dentin is produced at an average of 1.5 ?m/day, but can be increased to 3.5 ?m/day. The resulting dentin contains irregularly shaped dentinal tubules which may not line up with existing dentinal tubules. This diminishes the ability for dental caries to progress within the dentinal tubules.


(A) A small spot of decay visible on the surface of a tooth. (B) The radiograph reveals an extensive region of demineralization within the dentin (arrows). (C) A hole is discovered on the side of the tooth at the beginning of decay removal. (D) All decay removed.

Primary diagnosis involves inspection of all visible tooth surfaces using a good light source, dental mirror and explorer. Dental radiographs (X-rays) may show dental caries before it is otherwise visible, particularly caries between the teeth. Large dental caries are often apparent to the naked eye, but smaller lesions can be difficult to identify. Visual and tactile inspection along with radiographs are employed frequently among dentists, particularly to diagnose pit and fissure caries. Early, uncavitated caries is often diagnosed by blowing air across the suspect surface, which removes moisture and changes the optical properties of the unmineralized enamel.

Some dental researchers have cautioned against the use of dental explorers to find caries. In cases where a small area of tooth has begun demineralizing but has not yet cavitated, the pressure from the dental explorer could cause a cavity. Since the carious process is reversible before a cavity is present, it may be possible to arrest the caries with fluoride and remineralize the tooth surface. When a cavity is present, a restoration will be needed to replace the lost tooth structure.

At times, pit and fissure caries may be difficult to detect. Bacteria can penetrate the enamel to reach dentin, but then the outer surface may remineralize, especially if fluoride is present. These caries, sometimes referred to as “hidden caries”, will still be visible on x-ray radiographs, but visual examination of the tooth would show the enamel intact or minimally perforated.


An amalgam used as a restorative material in a tooth.

Destroyed tooth structure does not fully regenerate, although remineralization of very small carious lesions may occur if dental hygiene is kept at optimal level. For the small lesions, topical fluoride is sometimes used to encourage remineralization. For larger lesions, the progression of dental caries can be stopped by treatment. The goal of treatment is to preserve tooth structures and prevent further destruction of the tooth.

Generally, early treatment is less painful and less expensive than treatment of extensive decay. Anesthetics—local, nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), or other prescription medications—may be required in some cases to relieve pain during or following treatment or to relieve anxiety during treatment. A dental handpiece (“drill”) is used to remove large portions of decayed material from a tooth. A spoon is a dental instrument used to remove decay carefully and is sometimes employed when the decay in dentin reaches near the pulp. Once the decay is removed, the missing tooth structure requires a dental restoration of some sort to return the tooth to functionality and aesthetic condition.

Restorative materials include dental amalgam, composite resin, porcelain, and gold.Composite resin and porcelain can be made to match the color of a patient’s natural teeth and are thus used more frequently when aesthetics are a concern. Composite restorations are not as strong as dental amalgam and gold; some dentists consider the latter as the only advisable restoration for posterior areas where chewing forces are great.[68] When the decay is too extensive, there may not be enough tooth structure remaining to allow a restorative material to be placed within the tooth. Thus, a crown may be needed. This restoration appears similar to a cap and is fitted over the remainder of the natural crown of the tooth. Crowns are often made of gold, porcelain, or porcelain fused to metal.

A tooth with extensive caries eventually requiring extraction.

In certain cases, endodontic therapy may be necessary for the restoration of a tooth. Endodontic therapy, also known as a “root canal”, is recommended if the pulp in a tooth dies from infection by decay-causing bacteria or from trauma. During a root canal, the pulp of the tooth, including the nerve and vascular tissues, is removed along with decayed portions of the tooth. The canals are instrumented with endodontic files to clean and shape them, and they are then usually filled with a rubber-like material called gutta percha. The tooth is filled and a crown can be placed. Upon completion of a root canal, the tooth is now non-vital, as it is devoid of any living tissue.

An extraction can also serve as treatment for dental caries. The removal of the decayed tooth is performed if the tooth is too far destroyed from the decay process to effectively restore the tooth. Extractions are sometimes considered if the tooth lacks an opposing tooth or will probably cause further problems in the future, as may be the case for wisdom teeth. Extractions may also be preferred by patients unable or unwilling to undergo the expense or difficulties in restoring the tooth.


Toothbrushes are commonly used to clean teeth.

Oral hygiene
Personal hygiene care consists of proper brushing and flossing daily. The purpose of oral hygiene is to minimize any etiologic agents of disease in the mouth. The primary focus of brushing and flossing is to remove and prevent the formation of plaque. Plaque consists mostly of bacteria. As the amount of bacterial plaque increases, the tooth is more vulnerable to dental caries when carbohydrates in the food are left on teeth after every meal or snack. A toothbrush can be used to remove plaque on accessible surfaces, but not between teeth or inside pits and fissures on chewing surfaces. When used correctly, dental floss removes plaque from areas which could otherwise develop proximal caries. Other adjunct hygiene aids include interdental brushes, water picks, and mouthwashes.

However oral hygiene is probably more effective at preventing gum disease than tooth decay. The brush and fluoride toothpaste have no access inside pits and fissures, where chewing forces food to be trapped. (Occlusal caries accounts for between 80 and 90 percent of caries in children (Weintraub, 2001). The teeth at highest risk for carious lesions are the first and second permanent molars.)

Professional hygiene care consists of regular dental examinations and cleanings. Sometimes, complete plaque removal is difficult, and a dentist or dental hygienist may be needed. Along with oral hygiene, radiographs may be taken at dental visits to detect possible dental caries development in high risk areas of the mouth.

Dietary modification

For dental health, frequency of sugar intake is more important than the amount of sugar consumed. In the presence of sugar and other carbohydrates, bacteria in the mouth produce acids which can demineralize enamel, dentin, and cementum. The more frequently teeth are exposed to this environment, the more likely dental caries are to occur. Therefore, minimizing snacking is recommended, since snacking creates a continual supply of nutrition for acid-creating bacteria in the mouth. Also, chewy and sticky foods (such as dried fruit or candy) tend to adhere to teeth longer, and consequently are best eaten as part of a meal. Brushing the teeth after meals is recommended. For children, we recommend limiting the frequency of consumption of drinks with sugar, and not giving baby bottles to infants during sleep. Mothers are also recommended to avoid sharing utensils and cups with their infants to prevent transferring bacteria from the mother’s mouth.

It has been found that milk and certain kinds of cheese like Cheddar can help counter tooth decay if eaten soon after the consumption of foods potentially harmful to teeth. Also, chewing gum containing xylitol (a sugar alcohol) is widely used to protect teeth in some countries, being especially popular in the Finnish candy industry.Xylitol’s effect on reducing plaque is probably due to bacteria’s inability to utilize it like other sugars. Chewing and stimulation of flavour receptors on the tongue are also known to increase the production and release of saliva, which contains natural buffers to prevent the lowering of pH in the mouth to the point where enamel may become demineralised.

Common dentistry trays used to deliver fluoride.

Other preventive measures
The use of dental sealants is a means of prevention. A sealant is a thin plastic-like coating applied to the chewing surfaces of the molars. This coating prevents food being trapped inside pits and fissures in grooves under chewing pressure so resident plaque bacteria are deprived of carbohydrate that they change to acid demineralisation and thus prevents the formation of pit and fissure caries, the most common form of dental caries. Sealants are usually applied on the teeth of children, shortly after the molars erupt. Older people may also benefit from the use of tooth sealants, but their dental history and likelihood of caries formation are usually taken into consideration.

Calcium, as found in food such as milk and green vegetables, are often recommended to protect against dental caries. It has been demonstrated that calcium and fluoride supplements decrease the incidence of dental caries. Fluoride helps prevent decay of a tooth by binding to the hydroxyapatite crystals in enamel.The incorporated calcium makes enamel more resistant to demineralization and, thus, resistant to decay. Topical fluoride is also recommended to protect the surface of the teeth. This may include a fluoride toothpaste or mouthwash. Many dentists include application of topical fluoride solutions as part of routine visits.

Remineralization of teeth is also possible with products such as GC MI Tooth Mousse containing Recaldent CPP-ACP, CPP-ACFP, Oravive Tooth Revitalizing Paste and Dr. Collins Restore Toothpaste containing Novamin, and 3M ClinPro 5000 Tooth Crème.

Other products with little or less supportive scientific evidence for effectiveness for the purpose of remineralization include DCPD, ACP, calcium compounds, fluoride, and Enamelon.

As bacteria are a major factor contributing to poor oral health, there is currently research to find a vaccine for dental caries.

Chewing gum after eating promotes the flow of saliva which naturally reduces the acidic pH environment and promotes remineralization.

Xylitol lollies and gum also inhibit the growth of Streptococcus mutans.


Worldwide, most children and an estimated ninety percent of adults have experienced caries, with the disease most prevalent in Asian and Latin American countries and least prevalent in African countries. In the United States, dental caries is the most common chronic childhood disease, being at least five times more common than asthma. It is the primary pathological cause of tooth loss in children. Between twenty-nine and fifty-nine percent of adults over the age of fifty experience caries.

The number of cases has decreased in some developed countries, and this decline is usually attributed to increasingly better oral hygiene practices and preventive measures such as fluoride treatment. Nonetheless, countries that have experienced an overall decrease in cases of tooth decay continue to have a disparity in the distribution of the disease.Among children in the United States and Europe, twenty percent of the population endures sixty to eighty percent of cases of dental caries. A similarly skewed distribution of the disease is found throughout the world with some children having none or very few caries and others having a high number. Australia, Nepal, and Sweden have a low incidence of cases of dental caries among children, whereas cases are more numerous in Costa Rica and Slovakia.

The classic “DMF” (decay/missing/filled) index is one of the most common methods for assessing caries prevalence as well as dental treatment needs among populations. This index is based on in-field clinical examination of individuals by using a probe, mirror and cotton rolls. Because the DMF index is done without X-ray imaging, it underestimates real caries prevalence and treatment needs.


Fluoride therapy is commonly practiced and generally agreed upon as being useful by dentists. Fluoride combats the formation of tooth decay primarily in three ways:

  • Fluoride promotes the remineralization of teeth, by enhancing the tooth remineralization process. Fluoride found in saliva will absorb into the surface of a tooth where demineralization has occurred. The presence of this fluoride in turn attracts other minerals (such as calcium), thus resulting in the formation of new tooth mineral.
  • Fluoride can make a tooth more resistant to the formation of tooth decay. The new tooth mineral that is created by the remineralization process in the presence of fluoride is actually a harder mineral compound than existed when the tooth initially formed. Teeth are generally composed of hydroxyapatite and carbonated hydroxyapatite. Fluorapatite is created during the remineralization process when fluoride is present and is more resistant to dissolution by acids (demineralization). [citation needed]
  • Fluoride can inhibit oral bacteria’s ability to create acids. Fluoride decreases the rate at which the bacteria that live in dental plaque can produce acid by disrupting the bacteria and its ability to metabolize sugars. The less sugar the bacteria can consume, the less acidic waste which will be produced and participate in the demineralization process.[citation needed]

There are many different types of fluoride therapies, which include at-home therapies and professionally applied topical fluorides (PATF). At-home therapies can be further divided into over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription strengths. The fluoride therapies, whether OTC or PATF, are categorized by application – dentifrices, mouthrinses, gels/ foams, varnishes, dietary fluoride supplements, and water fluoridation.

Water Fluoridation

Water fluoridation is the controlled addition of fluoride to a public water supply in order to reduce tooth decay. Its use in the U.S. began in the 1940s, following studies of children in a region where water is naturally fluoridated. It is now used for about two-thirds of the U.S. population on public water systems and for about 5.7% of people worldwide.Although the best available evidence shows no association with adverse effects other than fluorosis, most of which is mild, water fluoridation has been contentious for ethical, safety, and efficacy reasons, and opposition to water fluoridation exists despite its support by public health organizations. As mentioned, fluoride primarily only helps teeth when it is in the mouth. After it is swallowed, it has minimal effect.

A 2000 systematic review of water fluoridation’s effectiveness found that fluoridation was associated with a decreased proportion of children with cavities (the median of mean decreases was 14.6%, the range ?5% to 64%), and with a decrease in decayed, missing, and filled primary teeth (the median of mean decreases was 2.25 teeth, the range 0.5 to 4.4 teeth). A more comprehensive 2007 review which used the 2000 review for its water fluoridation efficacy conclusions affirmed this result.

Most toothpaste today contains 0.32% (1450 ppm) fluoride, usually in the form of sodium fluoride or sodium monofluorophosphate (MFP); 100 g of toothpaste containing 0.76 g MFP equates to 0.1 g fluoride. Toothpaste may cause or exacerbate perioral dermatitis most likely caused by sodium lauryl sulfate, an ingredient in toothpaste.[citation needed] It is suspected that SLS is linked to a number of skin issues such as dermatitis and it is commonly used in research laboratories as the standard skin irritant with which other substances are compared.

Prescription strength fluoride toothpaste generally contains 1.1% (4,950 ppm) sodium fluoride toothpaste. This type of toothpaste is used in the same manner as regular toothpaste. It is well established that 1.1% sodium fluoride is safe and effective as a preventive of caries. This prescription dental cream is used up to three times daily in place of regular toothpaste.

Mouth rinses
The most common fluoride compound used in mouth rinse is sodium fluoride. Over-the-counter solutions of 0.05% sodium fluoride (225 ppm fluoride) for daily rinsing are available for use. Fluoride at this concentration is not strong enough for people at high risk for caries.

Prescription mouth rinses are more effective for those at high risk for caries, but are usually counterindicated for children, especially in areas with fluoridated drinking water. However, in areas without fluoridated drinking water, these rinses are sometimes prescribed for children.

Gels and foams are used for individuals who are at high risk for caries, orthodontic patients, patients undergoing head and neck radiation, patients with decreased salivary flow, and children whose permanent molars should, but cannot, be sealed.

The gel or foam is applied through the use of a mouth tray, which contains the product. The tray is held in the mouth by biting. Application generally takes about four minutes, and patients should not rinse, eat, smoke, or drink for at least 30 minutes after application.

Some gels are made for home application, and are used in a manner similar to toothpaste. The concentration of fluoride in these gels is much lower than professional products.

Fluoride varnish has practical advantages over gels in ease of application, a non-offensive taste, and use of smaller amounts of fluoride than required for gel applications. Varnish is intended for the same group of patients as the gels and foams. There is also no published evidence as of yet that indicates that professionally applied fluoride varnish is a risk factor for enamel fluorosis. The varnish is applied with a brush and sets within seconds.

Slow-release devices
Devices that slowly release fluoride can be implanted on the surface of a tooth, typically on the side of a molar where it is not visible and does not interfere with eating. The two main types are copolymer membrane and glass bead. These devices are effective in raising fluoride concentrations and in preventing cavities, but they have problems with retention rates, that is, the devices fall off too often.

Dietary supplements
Dietary fluoride supplements in the form of tablets, lozenges, or liquids (including fluoride-vitamin preparations) are used primarily for children in areas without fluoridated drinking water. The evidence supporting the effectiveness of this treatment for primary teeth is weak. The supplements prevent cavities in permanent teeth. A significant side effect is mild to moderate dental fluorosis.

Indications for fluoride therapy
Depending on the individual’s risk factors and the reason for treatment will determine which method of fluoride delivery is used. Consult with a dentist before starting any treatment.

  • white spots
  • Moderate to high risk patients for developing decay
  • Active decay
  • Orthodontic treatment
  • Additional protection if necessary for children in areas without fluoridated drinking water
  • To reduce tooth sensitivity
  • Protect root surface
  • Decreased salivary flow
  • Institutionalized patients

Health risks

There are several risks involved if unusually high amounts of fluoride are consumed. Acute overdose can cause fluoride poisoning and death. Chronic intake and topical exposure may cause dental fluorosis, and excess systematic exposure can lead to systemic effects such as skeletal fluorosis. Young children are at risk for receiving excess fluoride, and the ADA has recently issued an interim guidance on their fluoride consumption.

In 1974 a 3-year old child swallowed 45 milliliters of 2% fluoride solution, estimated to be triple the fatal amount, and then died. The fluoride was administered during his first visit to the dentist, and the dental office was later found liable for the death.


Most fluorosis is mild and cosmetic, but the chance of more severe fluorosis increases with exposure. A recent report by National Research Council (NRC) states that severe dental fluorosis can be considered a “toxic effect” which increases the prevalence of caries (106), but fluorosis this severe is not expected with the normal use of fluoride therapy.