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What Causes Cavities?

Cavities are a big problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 46% of kids between the ages of 2-19 have cavities, and 13% of them are untreated. Things just get worse as they grow up: More than 91% of adults over the age of 20 have cavities, and 27% of them are untreated.  

What’s causing all these cavities and how can you protect your own teeth from becoming part of these alarming statistics? At Silverlake Dentistry in Raymore, Missouri, our team of experienced dental experts, Dr. Joshua Whitford and Dr. Jessica Whitford, believe that the first step in cavity prevention is understanding the process. 

Armed with this information, you become more aware of the oral conditions to avoid and the best habits to adopt to protect your teeth from destructive cavities. Here’s what you need to know.

Cavities 101

When your enamel (the hard, outer shell of your teeth) becomes damaged, it creates a breach in your tooth’s protective armor. This could happen if you have microscopic stress fractures, a broken or chipped tooth, or a cavity.

Cavities, also known as dental caries or tooth decay, are tiny holes in your teeth that form when bacteria begin to eat away at the enamel. Left untreated, they get bigger and become a serious threat to your dental and overall health.

A close-up look at cavity formation

Despite the fact that about 178 million Americans have lost at least one tooth, and about 40 million of those have no teeth left at all, your teeth are designed to last you a lifetime. The primary reason for tooth loss is tooth decay, so it’s important to learn all you can about how it happens and how you can prevent it. Here’s the process. 


Every time you eat, you’re coating your teeth in sugars and starches. And it isn’t just candy and soda that do damage — healthy foods like dairy products can be culprits as well. Even though you swallow the food, some of it stays behind and lingers in your mouth, particles get stuck between teeth, and the starches and sugars bathe your teeth and gums.

Plaque formation

If you don’t brush your teeth right away, the natural bacteria in your mouth feed on the sugars and starches, and they begin to form a sticky film on the surface of your teeth called plaque. 

This sticky plaque seeps under your gum line, where it’s very hard to reach with your toothbrush, so even when you do brush, it gets left behind. If you don’t get rid of it, plaque slowly hardens and turns into tartar, a tough shield that keeps harmful bacteria covered, so it can do even more damage.

Acid attacks

Once it’s taken up residence on your teeth, plaque’s acid starts to eat away at the enamel. As it erodes the surface, it creates tiny openings you know as cavities. In its early stages, you may not notice a cavity, as many are too small to see, and they have yet to reach a nerve. We can detect cavities with an X-ray and treat them with fillings before they progress and become a more serious problem.

But left untreated, the cavity gets bigger and breaches the next layer of your teeth called the dentin, a softer part of the tooth that has no defense against decay. If your cavity reaches the dentin, you may begin to feel some pain, because the dentin has countless tiny canals that run directly to the sensitive nerves inside.

Advanced tooth decay

If you ignore your cavity, there’s nothing to stop it from progressing to the next layer of your inner tooth, the pulp. This is the life source of your tooth where the blood and nerves live. If the bacteria enter this chamber and get down into the root, you’re at risk for losing your tooth and damaging your jawbone. To stop the destruction, you may need a root canal to clean out the decay and save the tooth.

Tooth decay this advanced also puts you at risk for other health conditions as the bacteria enter your bloodstream and infect other body parts. Gum disease and tooth decay are directly linked to heart valve damage and heart disease. 

Preventing cavities

In addition to eating lots of sweets and neglecting good oral hygiene, several other habit and conditions contribute to the formation of cavities, including:

If you suspect you have a cavity, come see us to get a complete evaluation of your dental health and the treatment you need to keep your teeth healthy and functional for the rest of your life. Contact us at 816-368-5968 to schedule an appointment with our team. 

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