Whether you're a kid or an adult, one of the last things you want to hear from your dentist is, "You have a cavity." This article explores the common causes of cavities (also known as tooth decay) and how cavities can be prevented.

Targeting the Enamel & Dentin

According to the National Institutes of Health, cavities are the second-most common disorder (preceded only by the common cold). Cavities most typically involve holes in the enamel, the hard outer layer of the crown of the tooth. Cavities may also strike other parts of the tooth, including the dentin, which lies just beneath the enamel.

The natural enemy of the enamel and dentin is plaque - the sticky, bacteria-laden substance that constantly accumulates on our teeth and causes cavities.

What leaves your mouth particularly vulnerable to cavities? For one thing, eating or drinking foods or beverages with sugars or starches, like milk, bread, soda, raisins and candy.

When you consume these items, as the American Dental Association explains, "The bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack tooth enamel. The stickiness of the plaque keeps these acids in contact with your teeth, and after many such attacks, the enamel can break down and a cavity forms."

Not Just for Kids

It's well-known that young children are more susceptible to cavities than adults. The reason: Kids who are seven years or younger have enamel that is relatively soft and porous, making their teeth an easier target for dangerous bacteria-carrying plaque.

However, adults certainly can get their share of cavities, too. As we get older, our gum tissue naturally recedes from our teeth. This development gives plaque easier access to tooth roots, which can cause cavities there.

Having older fillings in your mouth can also increase your risk of cavities. As fillings age, they may weaken and break, creating an opening for plaque to build up and do its damage.

Preventing Cavities

Want to keep your mouth cavity-free? The first step is to follow good oral-hygiene practices, such as:

  • Brushing your teeth twice daily with fluoride toothpaste
  • Flossing your teeth once daily
  • Eating a nutritious diet and staying away from heavily sugared foods and drinks
  • Limiting your snacking
  • Visiting your dentist every six months for checkups

In addition, you can ask your dentist about dental sealants, plastic material applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth to prevent cavities.