Good oral health contributes to a healthy smile, teeth, and gums. Poor dental hygiene, on the other hand, can put you at risk for tooth decay, also known as a cavity or a rotten tooth.

Decay is caused by plaque, which is a sticky, colorless film that forms over the teeth. Plaque contains bacteria, and when these bacteria mix with sugar in foods, it creates an acid that eats away at the tooth. If left untreated, a severely decayed tooth can become loose and fall out, so it’s important to recognize the causes and symptoms of a rotten tooth.

Pictures of rotten teeth

Symptoms of rotten teeth

Tooth decay, or a rotten tooth, refers to a permanently damaged area on the tooth’s surface. Because some cavities can go undetected with no symptoms, it’s essential to schedule regular dental visits. A dentist can identify and treat cavities early to stop further tooth rot.

An untreated cavity can become larger and gradually affect the deeper layers of the tooth. Along with a hole, other signs of a rotten tooth include:

  • toothache
  • sensitivity to hot or cold
  • brown, black, or white spots on the tooth
  • bad breath
  • unpleasant taste in the mouth
  • swelling

A rotten tooth isn’t only an adult problem, it can also occur in infants, toddlers, and children. Symptoms of tooth rot in children are generally the same as those in adults but may also include swollen gums, irritability, and a fever, which indicates an infection.

If your child seems irritable and is unable to express the location of pain or discomfort, check inside their mouth and look for signs of a problem.

Causes of rotten teeth

There isn’t only one cause of rotten teeth, but rather a collection of possible causes. Understanding factors for tooth decay can help prevent future problems with your teeth.

Poor dental hygiene

Regular brushing and flossing are necessary to remove plaque and keep your teeth strong and healthy. Brush your teeth at least two times a day and floss daily. Additionally, see a dentist twice a year for a professional dental cleaning.

Poor diet

Eating a diet that’s high in sugar and carbohydrates can also contribute to tooth rot because these foods cling to the teeth.

Sugar also feeds bacteria, and the more bacteria in your mouth, the more acid in your mouth. If you eat a lot of sugary foods and don’t brush regularly, you may experience faster breakdown of your tooth enamel, which is the outer layer of your tooth. Likewise, consuming too many acidic drinks (soda and juices) and having acid reflux disease can also cause tooth decay. The acid in beverages can slowly dissolve tooth enamel. With acid reflux, stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus and mouth can also erode tooth enamel.

Dry mouth

If your salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva to help wash away plaque and bacteria in your mouth, you could have more plaque and acid in your mouth, the risk of tooth decay or rot.

Dental crevices

Tooth decay can also occur if you have deep dental crevices. These groves can make it harder to brush effectively, and if plaque settles in these groves, it can eat away at your tooth’s surface. Applying a dental sealant to healthy teeth may prevent the buildup of plaque.

Fluoride deficiency

Fluoride is a natural mineral that can strengthen tooth enamel, making it resistant to cavities. Fluoride is added to public water supplies, but it’s not usually found in bottled water. If you don’t use a toothpaste with fluoride or drink from your city’s water supply, there’s a risk for tooth decay.

Baby bottle

Tooth decay can also occur at an early age if your child falls asleep with a bottle of milk, juice, or formula in their mouth, or if you dip your child’s pacifier in sugar or honey. In both instances, sugar can collect around the teeth and lead to tooth decay.

Treatment for rotten teeth | Treatment

The treatment for rotten teeth is generally the same for both children and adults, and saving the tooth is the goal of treatment.

Treatment for early stages of rotten teeth

In the early stages of tooth rot (small cavity), your dentist may perform a fluoride treatment to strengthen or remineralize the tooth, which may reverse a cavity. This method, however, only works for smaller cavities, and isn’t effective once other signs of rotting develop, such as dark or white spots on the tooth and bad breath.

Treatment for advanced stages of rotten teeth

When a fluoride treatment isn’t an option, your dentist can remove decayed parts of the tooth and perform either a dental filling or a dental crown to fill holes in the tooth. For a filling, your dentist uses a tooth-colored composite resin or an amalgam filling such as mercury, silver, or another type of metal. With a crown, your dentist places a dental cap over the decayed tooth.

Treatment for very advanced stages of rotten teeth

You may need a root canal if the decay has spread to the center of the tooth and there’s inflammation or an infection. Your dentist removes the infected nerve and pulp, and then fills and seals the space.

When a tooth can’t be saved due to severe rot, your dentist may extract the tooth and replace it with a denture, bridge, or an implant.

If your child has a rotten baby tooth that can’t be fixed with a dental filling, you may feel a root canal is unnecessary since this isn’t your child’s permanent tooth. But although a decayed tooth will naturally fall out on its own, your child’s dentist may still recommend a root canal to prevent premature loss of the tooth. If the tooth were to fall out early due to decay, this could cause misalignment of their permanent teeth.

What is the outlook for rotten teeth?

Tooth decay can be minor or severe, so it’s important to see a dentist regularly and not ignore signs of a cavity. If diagnosed early, you can receive treatment and possibly avoid complications of a rotten tooth such as infections and tooth loss.