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

Rate your dentist

You can now comment on your NHS dentist and share your experience with others. Rate your dentist here.

Dental check-ups

How often you need a dental check-up, and what to expect when you visit your dentist

Tooth decay is a common problem that occurs when acids in your mouth dissolve the outer layers of your teeth.

It is also known as dental decay or dental caries.

Although levels of tooth decay have decreased over the last few decades, it is still one of the most widespread health problems in the UK.

It's estimated that around one in every three adults in England have tooth decay and a survey of five year old children carried out in 2012 found that more than one in four had some degree of tooth decay.

Signs and symptoms

Tooth decay may not cause any symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage. As the problem develops, symptoms of tooth decay can include:

  • toothache
  • tooth sensitivity – you may feel tenderness or pain when eating or drinking something hot, cold or sweet
  • grey, brown or black spots appearing on your teeth
  • bad breath
  • an unpleasant taste in your mouth

If left untreated, tooth decay can lead to further problems such as a cavities (holes in the teeth) gum disease or dental abscesses (collections of pus at the end of the teeth or in the gums).

When to see your dentist

Toothache is a warning that something is wrong and that you should visit your dentist as soon as possible. If you ignore the problem it may get worse, and you could end up losing a tooth.

Even if you don't have any noticeable problems with your teeth, it is still important to have regular dental check-ups so your dentist can check for early signs of decay. Tooth decay is much easier to treat in its early stages.

Adults over 18 should have a check-up at least once every two years and people under the age of 18 should have a check-up at least once a year. Your dentist may suggest having more frequent check-ups if you have had a history of dental problems, or you are thought to be at a higher risk of developing tooth decay.

Dentists can usually identify tooth decay by examining your teeth, although occasionally an X-ray may be carried out to check for any cavities or abscesses.

What causes tooth decay?

Your mouth is full of bacteria that combine with small food particles and saliva to form a sticky film known as plaque.

When you consume food and drink high in carbohydrates – particularly sugary foods and drinks – the bacteria in plaque turn the carbohydrates into energy they need, producing acid at the same time.

If the plaque is allowed to build up, the acid can begin to break down the outer surface of your tooth and can eventually enter and damage the soft part at the centre of the tooth.

Read more about the causes of tooth decay.

How to prevent tooth decay

Although tooth decay is a common problem, it is often entirely preventable. The best way to avoid tooth decay is to keep your teeth and gums as healthy as possible.

To do this, you should:

  • brush your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste twice a day, spending at least two minutes each time
  • use floss or an interdental toothbrush at least once a day to clean between your teeth and under the gum line
  • avoid rinsing your mouth with water or mouthwash after brushing because this washes the protective toothpaste away – just spit out any excess toothpaste
  • cut down on sugary and starchy food and drinks, particularly between meals or within an hour of going to bed

Read more about preventing tooth decay.

How tooth decay is treated

If you see your dentist when the decay is in the early stages, your dentist may apply a fluoride varnish to the area to help stop further decay.

If the decay has worn away the outer layer of your tooth and caused a cavity, your dentist will remove the decay and refill the hole in your tooth with a filling. If the nerve in the middle of your tooth is damaged, you may need root canal treatment, which involves removing the nerve and restoring the tooth with a filling or crown.

If the tooth is so badly damaged that it cannot be restored, it may need to be removed.

Read more about treating tooth decay.

Page last reviewed: 30/05/2014

Next review due: 30/05/2016


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 164 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


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.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

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.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

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?

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

How to brush and floss

Brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste will help keep your teeth and mouth healthy

Healthy life, healthy teeth

Taking care of your general health, as well as your teeth, is the key to a healthy mouth

Finding an NHS dentist

Find out how to find an NHS dentist, including where to seek help if you have difficulties locating one in your local area