9 Things You Didn't Know About Tooth Decay

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Ashley Festa on November 17, 2020
  • Smiling African American family
    Get the facts on tooth decay and oral health.
    Most of us know that sugar leads to cavities and tooth decay, but do you know why? Bacteria in your mouth feed on sugar, then those bacteria produce acid that breaks down enamel and causes tooth decay. Brushing and flossing daily, along with avoiding sugary foods, are well-known healthy habits, but there’s more to the story when it comes to tooth decay and cavities. By knowing these facts about tooth decay, you can be better prepared to prevent the problems associated with it.
  • woman checking her teeth in mirror at bar
    1. Discolored teeth are a sign of tooth decay.
    Teeth stains aren’t always a result of coffee drinking or smoking. Tooth decay can also cause yellow, brown or black staining on your teeth when the enamel, which is part of what makes your teeth white, breaks down. However, you might not expect to see—or be very concerned about—white stains. When tooth enamel loses minerals due to acid from bacteria, the teeth can begin to have white spots. These spots are also a sign of tooth decay.
  • Taking chewing gum
    2. Saliva is an important part of stopping tooth decay and cavities.
    Saliva helps wash away food particles that may get stuck in your teeth after eating. This cuts down on plaque, which is the sticky film of bacteria that gets stuck on teeth. This cleansing aspect of saliva helps prevent tooth decay on its own, but the minerals in saliva can also rebuild tooth enamel. After the bacteria in your mouth begin creating the acids that erode enamel, the minerals calcium and phosphate found in saliva help repair the damage. Chewing sugarless gum can increase saliva production.
  • woman shopping for dental products
    3. You may be able to reverse tooth decay and prevent a cavity.
    In addition to saliva, fluoride also helps stop or even reverse tooth decay. By replacing lost minerals in your teeth, fluoride can help repair the enamel and stop tooth decay. Fluoride also makes it harder for bacteria in your mouth to make the acid that breaks down enamel. Fluoride is often found in toothpaste, and it is also added to most of America’s public water supply for the specific purpose of aiding oral health.
  • Person filling cup of water from kitchen sink faucet
    4. Water from the tap may help prevent tooth decay.
    Consider switching from bottled water to tap for better oral health. More than 70% of Americans have access to public water supply that has been fluoridated, meaning fluoride has been added to the water. Fluoridated water helps prevent bacteria in the mouth and boosts remineralization, which is when decaying tooth enamel builds back up. Less than 1 milligram of fluoride per liter of water can help prevent and reverse tooth decay. Fluoridated water is also considered completely safe to drink by most studies.
  • Woman in front of the refrigerator late night
    5. When you eat—not just what you eat—also can contribute to tooth decay.
    Saliva is great at washing away bits of food and fighting the acids bacteria make in the mouth. However, snacking often, especially on sugary treats or drinks, can cause more acid production than saliva can keep up with. It’s also important not to eat or drink anything after brushing your teeth before bedtime. Our mouths make less saliva while we sleep, so eating before heading to bed allows bacteria to thrive and acid to destroy tooth enamel all night long. Babies who take a bottle of milk or juice to bed also are at risk for nighttime tooth decay.
  • woman smiling at dental appointment
    6. It’s important to visit a dentist regularly, even if you don’t have any pain.
    While pain is a good indicator that something is wrong in your mouth, you might not necessarily be aware of tooth decay or recognize that a tooth cavity is forming. Regular dental checkups, usually every six months or as recommended by your dentist, will help you be aware of what’s going on in your mouth and can catch tooth decay before it causes a full-blown cavity. If you have a high risk of developing a tooth cavity, your dentist can also recommend other ways, such as special fluoride treatments, to protect your teeth.
  • man-with-heartburn-pressing-chest
    7. Heartburn can cause more problems than just discomfort.
    While heartburn and acid reflux are painful on their own, they also contribute to tooth decay and damage. When stomach acid comes back into your mouth, it begins to destroy the enamel on your teeth. This allows bacteria to reach the layers of your teeth under the enamel and cause tooth decay. To reduce your likelihood of having heartburn, avoid eating or drinking alcohol at least three hours before going to bed. For some people, acid reflux has other causes, and in this case, consult a doctor for help controlling the problem.
  • Male African American patient at dentist or oral surgeon
    8. Dental plaque can lead to a serious gum disease that can affect the bone.
    The plaque on your teeth that causes tooth decay can also cause gum disease. When plaque sticks on your teeth near the gums, it damages the gum tissue, which causes gingivitis. While this is a common and fairly mild gum disease on its own, left untreated it can develop into an infection called periodontitis. This can be a serious medical problem because there’s bone and tissue loss around the affected teeth, which may have to be removed.
  • young woman with toothache or jaw pain on white background
    9. The consequences of tooth decay may be more than you expected.
    In addition to causing pain, tooth decay can lead to the need for a tooth filling, crown or root canal. In severe cases, you may even have to get the tooth pulled. Losing a tooth can cause chewing and eating problems, which then can lead to malnutrition in some cases. A lost tooth can cause other teeth to shift in the mouth, and tooth loss can also make someone feel self-conscious about his or her appearance and affect self-esteem.
9 Things You Didn't Know About Tooth Decay

About The Author

Ashley Festa is a Greenville, S.C.-based freelance writer and editor who has been writing professionally for nearly two decades. In addition to Healthgrades, she also has written for Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, the University of Texas at Arlington School of Nursing and Health Innovation, and Fit Pregnancy magazine.
  1. Cavities/tooth decay. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cavities/symptoms-causes/syc-20352892
  2. The Tooth Decay Process: How to Reverse It and Avoid a Cavity. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/childrens-oral-health/tooth-decay-process
  3. Fluoridated Water. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/myths/fluoridated-water-fact-sheet
  4. Bottled Water. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/fluoridation/faqs/bottled_water.htm
  5. Erosion: Stomach Upset and Your Teeth. Mouth Healthy. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/e/tooth-erosion-and-acid-reflux
  6. The True Story of Why You Get Cavities, According to a Billion Microbes. The University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry. https://dentistry.uic.edu/patients/cavity-prevention-bacteria
  7. Gingivitis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gingivitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354453
  8. Periodontitis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/periodontitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354473
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Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.