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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Tooth decay

Niho pirau

Tooth examinationTooth decay is the gradual destruction of a tooth caused by bacteria in dental plaque and too much sugar. It's also known as dental caries.

The bacteria break down sugar into acid and this wears away the tough outer enamel layer of the tooth. This makes a hole that continues to wear through the softer dentine layer. If left untreated, it will wear through to the nerve of the tooth causing pain (toothache) and infection.

Regular brushing twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and avoiding sugar in food and drinks helps to prevent tooth decay. Regular dental checks will pick up early holes in the outer tooth, which can be cleaned up and filled to prevent further damage to the tooth. This is called a filling.

Tooth decay in babies and children

Tooth decay in tamariki (children) is also described as Early Childhood Caries (ECC). It's caused by frequent exposure to sugar. Teeth can be at risk of decay from the time they start to appear.

You can prevent ECC by brushing your baby’s teeth with a fluoride toothpaste as soon as the first tooth comes through the gum. Also aim to avoid sugar in food and drinks.

Pēpi (baby) bottles can also increase the risk of dental caries if not used correctly. Always hold your pēpi while feeding and do not put them to bed with a bottle. Going to sleep with a bottle of milk, a warm chocolate drink, juice or cordial will start to cause tooth decay. If your tamaiti (child) uses a pacifier or dummy, you should also never dip it in sugar, honey or sweetened drinks.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2022.

See also:

Fixing teeth

Looking after teeth & gums

Page reference: 75177

Review key: HICPA-75368