What Is Tooth Decay and How Is It Caused?

For most adults, we know that tooth decay is bad. It is something we want to avoid, and understand it could spell disaster for the health of our smile. But what is tooth decay? How is tooth decay caused? Can it be prevented, or are all of us destined…

For most adults, we know that tooth decay is bad. It is something we want to avoid, and understand it could spell disaster for the health of our smile. But what is tooth decay? How is tooth decay caused? Can it be prevented, or are all of us destined to have some degree of decay at some point in our lives?

These are all excellent questions in which we will go over in this article. Gaining a deeper understanding of tooth decay, cavities, and what it means to your overall oral health can help you make a smarter choice for your teeth in gums in the future.

What is tooth decay?

What is tooth decay?

Most of us have experienced tooth decay at some point in our lives. Most of us know it by a different name. Cavities are a form of tooth decay. Once the enamel wears down to a certain point, a hole in the tooth develops. Tooth decay is everything leading up to and including the cavity itself.

The good news for those with some tooth decay is that if caught early, it can be reversed and solved. For example, Christiansen Dental shows their patients with photos and x-rays of which teeth have new decay and what needs to be done to restore them to an optimal condition. Allowing decay to continue, however, will result in cavities and eventually, tooth loss. Essentially tooth decay is the loss of precious minerals that make up our teeth’ enamel.

If allowed to demineralize without replenishing, the enamel will wear thin. Eventually, the enamel becomes so thin it will wear a hole. While a small cavity can be filled, the longer it has to expand, the harder it is to repair.

How is it caused?

It may seem shocking, but tooth decay is caused by the culmination of not caring for your teeth at home and not visiting your dentist. Tooth decay is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen after several consecutive days and weeks of not caring for your teeth.

It is advised that at-home care is the best place to start in terms of protecting your teeth. With proper brushing and flossing habits, you can eliminate the plaque and bacteria that contribute to tooth decay. When you put off brushing or flossing, you’re allowing the formation of tartar. Tartar is the destroyer of teeth, not to mention impossible to get off your teeth without visiting the dentist for proper cleaning.

Signs and symptoms of tooth decay and cavities

Tooth decay can sometimes be easily spotted. Those that have black spots on their teeth that remain after brushing might understand that this isn’t what a tooth is supposed to look like. These black areas, or even if you see holes, are a definite sign of tooth decay and cavities. But is there a way to identify enamel wear long before a cavity develops? There are a few signs to look for, and these can include:

  • Abnormal tooth sensitivity (to heat and cold).
  • Teeth look visibly thinner (you may be able to see through them).
  • Frequent toothaches
  • Visible holes or pits in the teeth.

Usually, tooth sensitivity is the first sign people notice. This can happen when eating overly cold or hot foods. You may also notice it if breathing through your mouth with lips slightly parted. Don’t brush off sensitivity as just something you need to treat, for example buying sensitive toothpaste. Visit your dentist for a checkup to determine the health of your teeth and gums.

Tips to prevent tooth decay

Tips to prevent tooth decay

If keeping your smile healthy and happy is a priority, there are things you can do to ensure your dentist doesn’t say ‘ you need a root canal.’ One of the best tips for preventing tooth decay is visiting your dentist. The American Dental Association recommends that children and adults visit the dentist every six months.

Tooth decay happens because of tartar buildup and bacteria. These things eat away at the tooth enamel, causing wear and tear that leads to holes in the teeth. Seeing your dentist regularly will stop decay, reversing damage, while keeping your teeth healthy as possible. It is recommended that you see your dentist every six months. Once a year, you’ll have an x-ray done to assess the condition of your teeth, and every time you have a cleaning and exam.

The next tip is observing good habits at home. Brushing and flossing are crucial to your oral health. It has probably been drilled into your brain since you were little that brushing and flossing are essential, and it truly is. Brushing twice daily and flossing at least once a day is a great guideline to follow.

If you have children, it’s important that you start them early with their at-home habits. When visiting a family dentist, like Image Dental, our dentist can help educate the importance of brushing and how to care for their teeth between office visits properly.


The health of your teeth is crucial. It all begins with the basics, and that is guarding against tooth decay. Tooth decay will continue to happen every day. It is your job to keep up with brushing and flossing to remove the contaminants that are trying to break down the tooth’s enamel. Remember visiting your dentist every six months will be your greatest ally in defense of your teeth and gums.

Image Dental is proud of your Stockton family dentist. Offering cleanings and general dentistry solutions, we can help remove plaque and tartar that contribute to tooth decay. If you are looking for a new dentist, you can request an appointment online or call us at (209) 955-1500.

Stephen Nozaki, DDS, MPH, DIDIA

Dr. Stephen Nozaki is the owner and lead dentist at Image Dental in Stockton. He is a dedicated professional born and raised in California's Central Valley. With a commitment to his community, he brings advanced dental techniques learned from extensive education and continuous training from around the world. A third-generation Japanese American, Dr. Nozaki has a rich background that includes international living and a deep passion for both dentistry and outdoor activities. His focus in dentistry aligns with his passion for cosmetics and dental implants.