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Tooth Decay (Dental Caries)

The decay of a tooth, in which it becomes softened, discolored, and/or porous.

PubMed Health Glossary
(Source: NIH - National Cancer Institute)

About Tooth Decay

Tooth decay (also called cavities or caries) is caused by bacteria, sweet foods and drinks, and a lack of oral hygiene. It can harm your teeth and cause a lot of pain, and may even result in loss of teeth.

Today tooth decay is much less common than it was just a few decades ago. That is mostly due to better oral hygiene and more people using fluoride toothpaste, which goes to show that there are a number of things you can do to improve the health of your teeth and prevent cavities.


White or brown spots on your teeth are the first sign of tooth decay. If it gets worse, holes develop on the surface of the teeth (cavities), and if the deeper layers of the teeth are affected, tooth decay can also harm the nerves in the teeth and the root. Then the teeth become sensitive and painful — especially when eating anything cold or sweet. Tooth decay can cause so much damage to the teeth that it may no longer be possible to save them... Read more about Tooth Decay

What works? Research summarized

Evidence reviews

Dental caries prevention: the physician's role in child oral health systematic evidence review

Bibliographic details: Bader J D, Rozier G, Harris R, Lohr K N.  Dental caries prevention: the physician's role in child oral health systematic evidence review. Rockville, MD, USA: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Systematic Evidence Review; 29. 2004 Available from: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/serfiles.htm

Topical fluoride for the prevention of dental caries in children: a sytematic review

Bibliographic details: Huang J, Chen Z, Guo Y.  Topical fluoride for the prevention of dental caries in children: a sytematic review. Chinese Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine 2012; 12(7): 848-854 Available from: http://www.cjebm.org.cn/en/oa/DArticle.aspx?type=view&id=2012070018

Dietary factors in the prevention of dental caries: a systematic review

The aim of this study was, systematically, to evaluate the effect of dietary changes in the prevention of dental caries. A search and analysis strategy was followed, as suggested by the Swedish Council on Technology Assessment in Health Care (SBU). The search strategy for articles published in 1966-2003 was performed using electronic databases and reference lists of articles and selected textbooks. Out of 714 articles originally identified, 18 met the inclusion criteria for a randomized or controlled clinical trial--at least 2 years' follow-up and caries increment as a primary endpoint. This included the total or partial substitution of sucrose with sugar substitutes or the addition of protective foods to chewing gum. No study was found evaluating the effect of information designed to reduce sugar intake/frequency as a single preventive measure. It is suggested that the evidence for the use of sorbitol or xylitol in chewing gum, or for the use of invert sugar, is inconclusive. No caries-preventive effect was found from adding calcium phosphate or dicalcium phosphate dihydrate to chewing gums. The review dearly demonstrates the need for well-designed randomized clinical studies with adequate control groups and high compliance.

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Summaries for consumers

Preventing tooth decay in children and teenagers

Tooth decay, also known as dental cavities or caries, is the most common dental problem amongst children. It can cause painful holes (cavities) in your teeth. The tooth material surrounding the cavity usually needs to be drilled out and then filled to keep the tooth decay from getting worse. But careful prevention can help to make treatment unnecessary.Regularly brushing your teeth and strengthening them by using fluoride are the most effective ways of preventing tooth decay. Sticking to a healthy diet and not eating too much candy or sweets is also important. And dental check-ups can also help detect and treat tooth decay early on.

Tooth decay: Overview

Protecting teeth from tooth decay and cavities is child’s play: A healthy diet, sugary foods and drinks in moderation, and good oral hygiene are the essentials. Here you can find information on the most important dental care products and when you might need fissure sealants on your back teeth.

Ozone therapy for the treatment of dental caries

There is no evidence that ozone therapy can reverse or stop tooth decay.

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More about Tooth Decay

Photo of a child

Also called: Cavities, Dental cavities, Holes in the teeth

Other terms to know:
Dental Enamel

Keep up with systematic reviews on Tooth Decay:


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