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Cavities: Not just for kids

Man in a dentist's chair

Most Americans don’t make it into adulthood without at least a few cavities. In fact, over 90% of adults over the age of 40 have had tooth decay in their permanent teeth. Unfortunately, the risk of tooth decay isn’t something you can outgrow.

“Fillings are more than just an unfortunate souvenir of childhood,” said Kevin Sheu, DDS, director of professional services for Delta Dental. “Changes associated with aging can make cavities a problem for people of any age.”

What causes cavities?

The main culprits behind adult cavities are receding gums and failed fillings.

Receding gums

Whether due to gum disease or to overly vigorous tooth brushing, your gum tissue can become swollen or damaged, exposing your tooth roots. Unlike the surfaces above the gum line, roots are not protected by hard enamel and are instead covered by a softer material known as “cementum.” This makes root surfaces more susceptible to plaque and decay.

If your gums have started receding, it’s especially important to maintain proper daily oral hygiene. Brush gently, paying special attention to your gum line, and floss every day.

If your gum disease is severe, you may benefit from periodontal treatments, such as scaling and root planing. Your dentist can recommend if these treatments are right for you.

Failed fillings

Existing fillings can also contribute to adult cavities. As a filling weakens over time, it tends to fracture and the seal between the filling material and the tooth loosens. Bacteria can accumulate in the cracks and crevices, causing acid buildup that promotes decay.

Maintain your fillings to protect your teeth from further decay. Visit your dentist for regular exams. With the help of dental x-rays, your dentist can check your existing fillings for wear to determine if any fillings need to be replaced. If a filling fails and the tooth becomes decayed, it may require a root canal and crown.

What types of cavities are there?

Tooth decay falls into three categories:

  • Pit-and-fissure cavities appear in the deep grooves (also known as pits and fissures) of back teeth. Sealants are a good preventive measure for this type of decay. These cavities are most common among children and teenagers.
  • Smooth surface cavities occur on the sides of your teeth. To avoid this kind of cavity, floss every day!
  • Root cavities develop under the gums, on the root of the tooth. Linked to gum disease, this type of cavity generally affects older adults.
Picture illustrating various types of dental decay

How can I avoid cavities?

Prevent tooth decay with these tips:

  • Brush your teeth morning and night using a fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride strengthens your enamel to help prevent cavities.
  • Floss between your teeth every day. Using floss regularly can interrupt the growth of cavity-causing bacteria and fight gum disease.
  • Avoid starchy and sugary snacks. These types of foods encourage the growth of harmful bacteria.
  • Ask your dentist about supplemental fluoride (such as a fluoride rinse) to keep your teeth strong.
  • Visit your dentist regularly for cleanings and exams.

“Any changes to your oral health, such as increased tooth sensitivity, swollen and painful gums or fillings that are loose, should be examined by dentist to prevent possible damage or loss of your teeth,” Sheu said.

Schedule dental exams for preventive care, and don’t put off additional visits to the dentist if you notice any changes to your oral health.

Related reading

Last updated: July 2018

The oral health information on this web site is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.