What is tooth decay?

A combination of plaque, sugar and time leads to tooth decay. The bacteria in the plaque, which sits on the tooth surface, use the sugars from our diet to produce acid. These bacteria survive well in an acidic environment and continue to produce more acid. The acids produced will dissolve the tooth surface very quickly by removing calcium and phosphate. These minerals are what make the tooth strong. If sugar is frequently available to the bacteria and lots of acid is being produced, the tooth surface will continually dissolve. This leads to tooth decay. If plaque from the tooth surface and sugars from the diet can be eliminated or greatly reduced, the risk of decay starting is minimised. Decay can also be stopped or reversed. This can only happen if acid production stops and the lost minerals are replaced. Lost minerals can be replaced with fluoride and the calcium and phosphate in saliva. Tooth decay can be detected during a through dental examination and history. It is important to detect decay early and determine whether you are at a high risk for developing tooth decay. This allows for preventive strategies specifically designed for your needs to be put in place. These strategies will require a certain amount of time and effort on your part, however the benefits of avoiding tooth decay are well worth it.

How can I prevent decay?


  • Avoid frequent intake of sugary foods, especially sticky foods. Look at food labels to see what they contain.
  • Bacteria love sugar and soon after it is eaten your mouth becomes very acidic. Swish your mouth out or have a drink of water to remove the bulk of remaining sugar from your mouth
  • Don’t snack all day; leave a long break between meals so your teeth have a longer time free from acids.
  • Casein phosphopeptides are available from some dairy foods and help to prevent decay. Finishing a meal with cheese is a quick and easy strategy.
  • You may be asked to complete a dietary analysis sheet to see how your eating habits may be contributing to your tooth decay.


  • Thorough, daily removal of plaque from the tooth surfaces and in between the teeth reduces the risk of tooth decay. The removal of plaque reduces the numbers of acid producing bacteria in your mouth.
  • Try to brush twice a day using Fluoride toothpaste. Ensure you brush well at night, as during sleep your saliva flow is greatly reduced putting the teeth at greater risk of decay. For shift workers this simply means brushing thoroughly before sleep.
  • Don’t brush directly after a meal as dissolved tooth may be scrubbed away. Swish the mouth out or have a drink of water and wait about half an hour before you brush.
  • A Chlorohexidine rinse may be recommended to help further reduce the numbers of acid producing bacteria in your mouth. Use this solution after brushing and flossing and rinsing thoroughly.


  • Drink plenty of water to ensure you have an adequate flow of saliva. You feel thirsty after you mouth has already become dry. This means that if you feel thirsty you will already be dehydrated. Dehydration causes a dry, acidic mouth, which increases the risk of tooth decay. Ideally, you would drink water if you thought you were likely to get thirsty later on. If you are thirsty then drink water and avoid sweet and acidic drinks.
  • Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine all reduce salivary flow. Caffeine is contained in coffee, tea, chocolate, cola and soft drinks and can cause dehydration.
  • Many herbal, prescription, recreational and over the counter medications and drugs can make your mouth dry, by reducing the flow of saliva. Cold and flu medications are an example, as are many mouth rinses containing alcohol. Alternatives may be available, however this is not always the case. Products are available to help relieve the discomfort of dry mouth.
  • Chewing sugar free gum helps to stimulate salivary flow. Some sugar free gums contain Xylitol, which helps to slow the growth of plaque.
  • Using a bicarbonate mouth rinse can reduce the acidity of a dry mouth. This helps the saliva to become alkaline. Rinse vigorously with a mixture of one teaspoon of “baking soda” in a glass of water, don’t swallow and discard the remaining portion. Use a fresh mixture each time.


  • Always use Fluoride toothpaste. Differing strength pastes are available for individual requirements.
  • Other Fluoride preparations are available such as tablets, rinses and gels. These are recommended on an individual basis and directions for use should be followed.

This information is a brief overview of dental decay and how to prevent it. You may now be able to identify the cause of your decay and take the necessary steps to prevent the problem continuing.

f you have any further questions we would be more than happy to help and guide you towards maintaining your dental health.