Although many cavities need immediate attention to avoid serious complications, there are situations, when a cavity is small or just beginning, that treatment with a filling or drilling can wait or may even be prevented. It is up to your employees’ dentist to decide whether to treat a cavity now or later, but here’s some information to help inform the decision.
How Cavities Develop
Tooth decay doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, as the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research notes, it is a disease process that happens over time. Thankfully, sometimes it can be stopped, reversed or entirely prevented. Bacteria in the mouth continually form a sticky plaque film on the teeth, and then use the sugars from foods (and drinks) to create acidic toxins that can eventually dissolve tooth enamel or other parts of the tooth.
The more often that teeth are exposed to these harmful acids, the greater the chance of experiencing tooth decay. After eating, the teeth are bathed in acids for approximately 20 minutes, according to the Wisconsin Dental Association. So the teeth of employees who graze on sugary snacks all day are under constant attack. This attack involves the acids dissolving minerals from the teeth, causing the teeth to decalcify and eventually decay, as the decalcified areas get larger and/or deeper into the teeth. Tooth decay can also start in oher areas of the teeth, like on the root surfaces that may be exposed due to gum recession as we age, or recession caused by gum disease. These root surfaces are not covered with enamel and can decay much more easily and quickly than the areas of the teeth that are covered by enamel.
Can Cavity Treatment Wait?
Soft white spots on a tooth, sometimes called incipient lesions, are the first visible signs that tooth enamel has lost some of its minerals and is beginning to decalcify, according to the American Association of Dental Consultants. At this point, the demineralization process can be stopped by reducing the frequency of sugary things that are consumed, along with emphasizing good oral hygiene practices. Over time, lesions can repair themselves with the minerals found in saliva and fluoride from toothpaste, among other sources.
As noted by the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), gum with xylitol can help remineralize tooth enamel after meals. The calcium in cheese and other dairy products can also help keep teeth healthy, the University of Rochester reports. When a dentist sees signs of early decay during an examination, he or she may tell the patient that while these areas may not need treatment involving a filling now, the dentist will keep an eye on those areas at each appointment—so that if a tooth needs a filling, it will be more likely to be a small one.
When to Seek Treatment
If early tooth decay is left untreated, it can break down more enamel and, in time, reach the softer dentin portion of the tooth. Not only will pain or tooth sensitivity become a real possibility as the cavity gets bigger, but the tooth won’t be able to repair itself—the decay will need to be removed and the tooth restored with a filling. If too much tooth enamel is destroyed, the dentist may have to place a crown to fix the tooth.
Since tooth decay moves quickly through the dentin layer of the tooth, it may reach the inner pulp portion of the tooth (which is made up of blood vessels and nerves) if treatment is delayed. When decay infects the pulp, an abscess may form and spread an infection to the surrounding bone, explains the AGD. Not only can this situation be very painful, there are only two treatment choices. The dentist can either perform a root canal to remove all of the diseased pulp tissue or extract the entire tooth.
Preventing Tooth Decay
Prevention is always the best medicine, and when it comes to tooth decay, this adage is definitely appropriate. If your employees and their families adhere to the following basics recommended by the American Dental Association, they may never have to worry about the unpleasant consequences of tooth decay:
- Brush thoroughly at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, and floss daily.
- Replace each family member’s toothbrush at least every three months. Frayed brushes don’t clean well and can harbor harmful bacteria.
- Visit the dentist regularly for an examination and for any necessary teeth cleaning procedures.
- Start children’s visits to the dentist before their first birthday, and when they start to get their baby teeth, ask about fluoride treatments and sealants as preventive measures.
- Encourage the family to eat healthy, nutritious meals and limit between-meal snacks. Since some snacking is inevitable, try to keep healthy alternatives on hand and limit the frequency of snacks.
Any dentist should tell you that cavity treatment, when the time is right, is definitely a “best practice.” And although being able to have an early cavity reverse itself is everyone’s wish, never letting a cavity get started is truly the epitome of good oral health.