Here’s How to Stop Tooth Decay Quickly
There’s a reason you should go to the dentist every six months.
Fact: No one likes going to the dentist. Even worse, no one likes hearing those words: Yep, it’s a cavity.”
By the time you can feel a cavity, chances are, the damage done to your tooth is permanent. “With tooth decay, dentists look to see how far the decay has extended,” says Alison Newgard, DDS, an assistant professor of dental medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “The crown of the tooth is made of three layers: enamel, dentin, and pulp (known as the nerve of the tooth). We specifically look to see if the decay has extended through the enamel and into the dentin, which is the second layer of the tooth under the enamel.” Once the cavity hits that point, it needs a filling.
But here’s the thing: While you may not be able to get rid of a full-blown cavity (i.e., one that’s reached the dentin), you can stop the tooth decay at the early stages—and even reverse it.
One red flag that something’s going on in your mouth: small holes in your teeth or increased sensitivity. It may be due to an incipient lesion, which is tooth decay that only reaches the enamel (the topmost layer of the tooth). According to Mark Burhenne, DDS, creator and author of AsktheDentist.com, “In this stage, you can still reverse cavities with proper nutrition (very limited grains, sugars, acids, and processed foods), better hydration, and improvement of the oral microbiome.” Newgard also recommends brushing and flossing regularly, and using extra fluoride, either in mouthwash or a prescription toothpaste, to prevent the incipient lesion from growing.
Fluoride is so important because “it supports your teeth’s natural remineralization process—your teeth resorb fluoride and incorporate it into their structure, which prevents softening of the enamel,” Burhenne says. “Every day, your teeth are constantly being remineralized and demineralized, so tooth decay happens when the demineralization is winning the race.” That’s how fluoride can help reverse the decay process before it gets too far along.
If you ignore tooth decay, it can lead to more serious issues. “A full-blown cavity is too large and the tooth structure is too damaged for the tooth structure to return to its original state,” says Dallas Kenson, DDS. “At this point, a dental restoration will be needed to restore the tooth.” And it only gets worse from there. “The cavity will continue to grow and eventually the decay will reach the nerve of the tooth,” Kenson says. “If bacteria have invaded the nerve, you’ll need a root canal. You may also lose a significant amount of tooth structure, which leads to pieces of the tooth breaking off.”
The bad news is that the early signs of tooth decay aren’t super noticeable—to you. But a dentist can definitely spot them on a radiograph or even feel them in your mouth, and that’s why it’s so important that you see your dentist every six months or so for a check-up, even if you don’t feel any pain. “Once you start to feel something, often the decay is very deep and into or near the pulp,” Newgard says.
Waited too long? You can’t treat the source of the pain on your own, but there are several ways to reduce the pain from a toothache until you get to the dentist. “My first recommendation is taking Advil,” Burhenne says. A salt rinse with warm water may help, too. Kenson also suggests avoiding anything that makes the pain worse (think: cold drinks and hard, crunchy foods).
If you truly dread the idea of a drill in your mouth, don’t avoid the dentist—the best thing you can do for your teeth is suffer through those regular checkups so you don’t end up spending even more time in the dentist’s chair later on.