Tooth decay 


The Tokkels: stop tooth decay

You can stop tooth decay by following a few simple rules. Use fluoride toothpaste; spit, don't rinse; brush before, not after, meals.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Tips for looking after your teeth

  • brush your teeth twice a day, in the morning and evening
  • spend at least three minutes each time
  • always use a fluoride toothpaste
  • use a small toothbrush that can reach the back teeth, applying no more than a pea-sized amount of toothpaste for adults
  • flossing is very important as the toothbrush does not always reach gaps between the teeth
  • do not brush too hard – this can damage gums
  • limit your consumption of sugar and starchy foods
  • avoid sugary drinks
  • visit your dentist regularly

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Tooth decay is when acids in your mouth dissolve the outer layers of your teeth.

You may also have heard it called dental decay or dental caries.

Over time, symptoms of tooth decay can include:

  • toothache 
  • pain when eating or drinking
  • visible discoloured spots on your teeth

If left untreated, a build up of plaque (see below) could lead to complications of tooth decay such as gum disease (gingivitis) or a dental abscess.

Regular dental checks can help your dentist spot signs of tooth decay early and identify any cavities (holes or damage in the teeth). Tooth decay is much easier to treat successfully in its early stages.

Read more about how tooth decay is diagnosed and NHS dentistry services.

Why do I have tooth decay?

Your mouth is full of bacteria which combine with small food particles and saliva to form a sticky film known as plaque which builds up on your teeth.

When you consume food and drink high in carbohydrates (sugary or starchy), bacteria in plaque turns carbohydrates into the energy they need, producing acid at the same time.

Over time, acid in plaque begins to break down your tooth's surface. Left untreated, plaque can completely destroy the outside of the tooth and expose nerves inside. Once this happens, you will have toothache.

Read more about the causes of tooth decay including risk factors.

Treating and preventing tooth decay

Although widespread, tooth decay is one of the most preventable health conditions. As long as you look after your teeth well and visit your dentist regularly, you should be able to prevent tooth decay.

There are also some changes you can make to your diet to minimise your risk of tooth decay. For example, cutting down on sugary food and drinks, particularly between meals or within one hour of going to bed.

Read more about preventing tooth decay.

If you get tooth decay, there are techniques that can help repair damaged teeth, such as fillings and crowns.

In more advanced cases of tooth decay, there may be a need for root canal treatment, or the tooth may need to be removed.

Read more about how tooth decay is treated.

How common is it?

Tooth decay is one of the most widespread health problems in the UK. It is estimated that 31% of adults in the UK have tooth decay.

Tooth decay is also a problem for children. It is thought around 31% of children starting school and around a third of children aged 12 have visible tooth decay.

Page last reviewed: 07/06/2012

Next review due: 07/06/2014


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

violetaswright said on 23 October 2013

Very helpful and informative. Agree! Tooth decay usually exhibits signs and symptoms including a sharp pain in the tooth generally occurring when you bite or chew your food.

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sciencebod said on 01 September 2011

While it is sensible to tell people to restrict their consumption of sugars, it is absurd to tell them to cut down on starchy foods as well. Yes, i know that starch is cariogenic, because breakdown to simple sugars begins as soon as food is mixed with saliva. But current dietary advice from the Government is to consume a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, a term which includes starches as well as non-starch polysaccharides. Consider for a moment what the alternatives are to starch. They are simple sugars (more cariogenic), fats and protein, all with more serious health implications if consumed in excess. So why is the NHS - and the NHS dentist I visited yesterday - giving out this idiotic advice to cut down on starch consumption when it conflcts with the Govt's own nutritional advice? Why not delete all references to starch, and simply tell folk to cut down on sugar, use fluoride toothpaste, and brush teeth carefully etc etc.?

PS: I used to be Head of Nutrition and Food Safety at a food RA, and contributed a chapter (The Glycaemic Index) to the British Nutrition Foundation Task Force Report on Complex Carbohydrates in 1990.

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Jackie58 said on 17 July 2009

I am trying to find out, when you have an injection at the dentists, to numb the teeth before a filling. what is in the injection. Could you have to much of the injection?

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Healthy life, healthy teeth

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