Root Decay: Understanding and Lowering Your Risk

What is Root Decay?

Root decay (also called “root caries” or “root cavities”) occurs when cavities form on the root surfaces of your teeth. The root surfaces are not usually visible unless your gums have receded, but if you have root cavities, then they are visible where your teeth meet your gums.

Example of root decay on set of teeth

This condition can occur as a result of gum disease, improper brushing (such as brushing with a toothbrush with bristles that are too firm), receding gums, or age-related changes to your gums.

How Are Root Cavities Different than Regular Cavities?

Cavities on the roots of teeth are aggressive. They grow much faster than cavities on other surfaces of the teeth, which means you might not realize there is a problem until the cavity is large and severe. The root surfaces of our teeth do not have the protective, hard enamel that covers the rest of the tooth so they are much softer and more vulnerable to cavities.

It can be difficult for dentists to treat cavities on the roots of teeth. This type of cavity can spread to the inside of the tooth where the nerve is, causing painful toothaches and infection. Large cavities on the roots can even cause a tooth to break off, putting you at an even higher risk for infection.

Why Are Seniors at an Increased Risk?

Older adults  are at a higher risk of experiencing root decay for a variety of reasons:

  • Exposed root surfaces are more common in older adults, which places seniors at higher risk of root decay.
  • Seniors are more likely to experience dry mouth, often as a side effect of medications. Saliva helps protect your teeth from cavities, so when there isn’t enough saliva, your risk of tooth decay goes up.
  • Older adults are more likely to struggle with arthritis or poor eyesight, which may make it harder to care for teeth or know that food is stuck in your mouth.

What Can I Do to Lower My Risk?

Preventive oral care is the best way to lower your risk of tooth decay (both regular and root cavities). That means brushing your teeth after every meal, especially if you ate carbohydrates such as bread or potatoes. If you have trouble remembering to brush your teeth, try using reminder notes.

The most important time to brush your teeth is before bed, so that you can clean off the food, plaque, and bacteria that accumulate on your teeth throughout the day.

If you think you have dry mouth, consider drinking more water or sucking on sugar-free hard candies. Avoid regular candy: sugar makes it more likely that you will get cavities, and also makes existing cavities larger. Talk to your dentist or doctor if dry mouth continues to be a regular issue.

Drink more water to help with dry mouth

Finally, keep up with regular visits to your dentist for your annual exams, cleanings, and x-rays. This will help your dentist find and treat issues that may lead to root decay before they become a larger problem.

About the Author

Teresa E. Johnson DDS, MS, MPH, DABSCD
Apple Tree Dental, Minneapolis MN, Education and Quality Assurance Director University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, Adjunct Associate Professor Special Care Dentistry Association, Member American Society for Geriatric Dentistry, Past President

The information on this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Tooth Wisdom® and Oral Health America do not recommend or endorse any specific dentists, products, procedures, opinions, or other information mentioned. See full Terms & Conditions.

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