Tooth Decay: Care Instructions

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Your Care Instructions

Tooth decay is damage to a tooth caused by plaque. Plaque is a thin film of bacteria that sticks to the teeth above and below the gum line. If plaque isn't removed from the teeth, it can build up and harden into tartar. The bacteria in plaque and tartar use sugars in food to make acids. These acids can cause tooth decay and gum disease.

Any part of your tooth can decay, from the roots below the gum line to the chewing surface. Decay can affect the outer layer (enamel) or inner layer (dentin) of your teeth. The deeper the decay, the worse the damage.

Untreated tooth decay will get worse and may lead to tooth loss. If you have a small hole (cavity) in your tooth, your dentist can repair it by removing the decay and filling the hole. If you have deeper decay, you may need more treatment. A very badly damaged tooth may have to be removed.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your dentist if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

If you have pain:

  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • Put ice or a cold pack on your cheek over the tooth for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.

To prevent tooth decay

  • Brush teeth twice a day, and floss once a day. Brushing with fluoride toothpaste and flossing may be enough to reverse early decay.
  • Use a toothbrush with soft, rounded-end bristles and a head that is small enough to reach all parts of your teeth and mouth. Replace your toothbrush every 3 or 4 months. You may also use an electric toothbrush that has rotating and oscillating (back-and-forth) action.
  • Ask your dentist about having fluoride treatments at the dental office.
  • Brush your tongue to help get rid of bacteria.
  • Eat healthy foods that include whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
  • Have your teeth cleaned by a professional at least two times a year.
  • Do not smoke or use smokeless tobacco. Tobacco can make tooth decay worse.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have trouble breathing.

Call your dentist now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.