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Tooth Decay, Cavities, and Erosion: What Are the Differences?

Tooth decay, cavities, and dental erosion are related but different dental conditions.

Most of us know that tooth decay, cavities, and erosion are oral conditions to avoid. Dental professionals and ads for oral care products use these terms frequently, and it might seem that they’re interchangeable. In fact, they represent three closely-related but separate conditions. What are the differences, and what should you know about avoiding them? Here’s the scoop.

Tooth decay—what is it and how does it start?

Tooth decay starts with plaque, a sticky bacterial film found along the gumline and the surface of the teeth. Over time, plaque can accumulate from normal eating and drinking. Starchy and sugary foods and drinks especially promote plaque buildup, because the sugar in these foods is a favorite treat for naturally occurring bacteria in your mouth. 

How does this lead to tooth decay? The acids that plaque produces can wear away the enamel covering your teeth, and this is the process of tooth decay. Acids from plaque can eventually reach the dentin layer below the enamel, where there are openings leading to the nerves of your teeth. Severe decay that reaches these openings can cause infection and pain. 

Plaque can also affect tooth roots, causing gum disease; can lead to bad breath, and over time, can harden and become tartar

To help control plaque buildup, you can brush your teeth thoroughly twice a day, though tartar can only be removed by a professional dental cleaning.

Read our related blog post on dental plaque and tooth decay.

Is tooth decay the same as cavities?

The two conditions are related but not the same. Tooth decay, the process of enamel breakdown, progresses through the structure of your teeth and creates small holes in them. These small holes are cavities, which may cause sensitivity or pain. Cavities—a result of tooth decay—can be filled by your dentist.

Read more about fillings on this page.

What is erosion? Is it the same as tooth decay?

Erosion and tooth decay are different conditions. While bacteria in your mouth produce the acid that can lead to tooth decay, erosion can result from direct exposure to acid—no bacteria needed. Erosion wears down the surface of your teeth, but unlike a small cavity, it can affect a sizable tooth surface area.

Acids that cause erosion can come from acid-forming foods and drinks with high levels of sugar and/or alcohol, certain medications, medical conditions such as acid reflux disease and dry mouth, and mouth breathing (which dries out the mouth), especially during sleep.

Because bacteria are not involved in promoting erosion, it can affect your mouth even if you floss and brush regularly. Erosion is not reversible, but it can be prevented and stopped from progressing.

For this reason, it’s important to take steps to protect your teeth from erosion-causing acids, including eating natural, unprocessed foods and avoiding sweetened drinks; rinsing with water about 30 minutes after consuming acidic foods and drinks; breathing through your nose; and seeing a physician for treatment of gastrointestinal issues such as persistent heartburn, acid reflux disease, and bulimia.

Read more about dental erosion here.

The bottom line

While tooth decay can lead to cavities and tartar, you can help reduce your decay risk by taking these steps:

  • Brush your teeth thoroughly twice a day for two minutes each time. Use an electric toothbrush if you can. Floss your teeth once a day.
  • Minimize your intake of acidic foods, and eat them as part of a meal.
  • Choose unsweetened drinks.
  • Minimize your intake of refined starches and sweets.
  • Rinse your mouth and swish vigorously with water for at least 20 seconds after meals and snacks.

These steps, as well as nasal breathing and seeking treatment for acid-causing medical conditions, will also help protect your teeth against dental erosion.

In addition, be sure to have your teeth professionally cleaned at least twice a year! At Winchester Dental, your hygiene appointment includes an oral exam by a dentist, and you can let us know about any concerns you have, as well as any changes in your overall health.

Is it time for your next visit? Schedule your appointment today!

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