Health A to Z
Tooth decay can occur when acid is produced from plaque, which builds up on your teeth.
If plaque is allowed to build up, it can lead to further problems, such as dental caries (holes in the teeth), gum disease or dental abscesses, which are collections of pus at the end of the teeth or in the gums.
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Tooth decay may not cause any pain. However, if you have dental caries you might have:
Visit your dentist regularly, so early tooth decay can be treated as soon as possible and the prevention of decay can begin. Tooth decay is much easier and cheaper to treat in its early stages. Dentists can usually identify tooth decay and further problems with a simple examination or X-ray.
It's also important to have regular dental check-ups. Adults should have a check-up at least once every two years and children under the age of 18 should have a check-up at least once a year.
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Treatment of tooth decay depends on how advanced it is.
NHS charges are set by the government and are standard for all NHS patients. Charges are assessed each year and usually change every April.
Some people don't have to pay for dental treatment, including children, pregnant women and new mothers. Financial help may also be available to those on a low income.
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The cost of private dental treatment varies between practices, as there is no set charge. If you choose to see a private dentist, make sure to agree the cost before having treatment.
Although tooth decay is a common problem, it's often entirely preventable. The best way to avoid tooth decay is to keep your teeth and gums as healthy as possible. For example, you should:
Establishing good eating habits by limiting sugary snacks and drinks can help your child avoid tooth decay. Regular visits to the dentist at an early age should also be encouraged.
It's important to teach your child how to clean their teeth properly and regularly. Your dentist can show you how to do this. Younger children should use a children's toothpaste, but make sure to read the label about how to use it.
Children should still brush their teeth twice a day, especially before bedtime.
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Your mouth is full of bacteria that form a film over the teeth called dental plaque.
When you consume food and drink high in carbohydrates – particularly sugary foods and drinks – the bacteria in plaque turn the carbohydrates into energy they need, producing acid at the same time.
If the plaque is allowed to build up, the acid can begin to break down (dissolve) the surface of your tooth, causing holes known as cavities.
Once cavities have formed in the enamel, the plaque and bacteria can reach the dentine (the softer, bone-like material underneath the enamel). As the dentine is softer than the enamel, the process of tooth decay speeds up.
Without treatment, bacteria will enter the pulp (the soft centre of the tooth that contains nerves and blood vessels). At this stage, your nerves will be exposed to bacteria, usually making your tooth painful.
The bacteria can cause a dental abscess in the pulp and the infection could spread into the bone, causing another type of abscess.