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Learn to Recognize Overlooked Signs of Tooth Decay

You may be able to recognize a cavity, but do you know how to spot the warning signs of tooth decay before it’s too late? It’s a lot cheaper (and less painful) to prevent a cavity from forming to begin with. It’s not hard to do that, if you practice good oral hygiene every day, schedule regular checkups with your dentist and avoid sticky, sugary foods as much as possible. But sometimes, even despite our best efforts, tooth decay can crop up.

Today, let’s discuss some of the early warning signs of tooth decay (also known as “dental caries”). Learn them so that you can spot developing dental problems and get them check out, before new cavities force you to spend your hard-earned money on summer days in the dentist’s chair.

Cavities can be hard to see.
Even if you’re the type who is always checking your smile in the mirror, there are plenty of hard-to-see nooks and crannies where tooth decay can proceed without your knowledge.

The backs of your teeth are hard to see without a handheld dentist’s mirror. So are the outward-facing surfaces and chewing surfaces of your molars. And most people don’t know it, but cavities can also form along or just below the gum line, or even in the side spaces between teeth.

That’s especially true if you don’t floss daily — if you aren’t removing small, trapped food particles and the bacteria that feed on them, the acids those bacteria produce can attack tooth enamel in those hidden or tight spaces just as easily as they can the readily visible enamel surfaces of your teeth.

That’s one of the reasons that regular dental checkups are so necessary. Your hygienist and dentist will carefully check all your teeth’s chewing surfaces, hard-to-see places and gum line surfaces to spot any developing cavities.

Often, with early treatment, drilling is unnecessary; sometimes, a weak spot in the enamel can be fixed with application of a little dental sealant.

Early warning signs of tooth decay.
One of the first things most people notice is increased sensitivity to hot, cold, sugary, or acidic foods and drinks. Sensitivity generally means that, somewhere, the tooth’s nerve root is exposed.

Sometimes, this can be a result of gum recession (something that can be avoided, again, by regular flossing and careful, gentle, daily toothbrushing with a soft-bristled brush). But, more often than not, tooth sensitivity is the result of tiny pits or cracks — called micro-fissures — having formed in the tooth’s enamel.

Using fluoride toothpaste can help to fortify the tooth enamel so that micro-fissures are less likely to develop, but it’s not a magic bullet. Dentists can sometimes also apply a sealant coat to sensitive teeth, if the enamel hasn’t been completely compromised.

But, once a cavity has formed, it’s too late. Your tooth will need to be drilled and filled. And in more serious cases, you might be in for a root canal.

Another early warning sign of tooth decay is pain when biting down. If you experience pain while chewing, you definitely need to get in to see your dentist pronto.

Discoloration of the teeth is another sign that your teeth aren’t as healthy as they could be.
Small, localized discolorations on the teeth — often white, brown, or black — are often good indicators that a cavity could be forming.

Although all discolorations aren’t cavities-in-the-waiting (some whitish spots are simply areas of heavier-than-usual calcification and thus not a problem), they’re always worth a dentist’s look-see — especially if they occur along the gum line (where cavities are highly likely) or if they are accompanied by increased sensitivity or pain.

Prevent tooth decay with these simple tactics.

  • Brush twice a day (after waking and before bed) with a soft-bristled brush and fluoride toothpaste. Avoid whitening toothpastes that use abrasives to remove stains
  • Floss daily
  • Brush and floss in between meals, especially if you eat sugary or acidic foods, or can feel food stuck in between your teeth
  • Rinse and gargle daily with an antiseptic mouthwash
  • Chew sugarless gum in between meals
  • Stay hydrated! Dry mouths foster more bacterial growth
  • Schedule and attend a dental cleaning checkup every 6 months.

If you don’t have a dentist, find a dentist in your area and schedule your first appointment as soon as possible. If you experience any of the early warning signs of tooth decay discussed above, call your dentist and schedule an appointment at the earliest available date. Sometimes, cavities detected early enough in their development can be fixed without drilling and filling them.

Share these tips with your family and friends. Remember to take excellent care of your teeth, so that you’ll have a lovely smile for years to come!