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Overview of Tooth Disorders

By James T. Ubertalli, DMD, Tufts University School of Dental Medicine;Hingham, MA

Common tooth disorders include cavities (caused by tooth decay), pulpitis, periapical abscess, impacted teeth, and malocclusion (see Malocclusion). Fractured, loosened, and knocked-out teeth are considered urgent dental problems (see Fractured, Loosened, or Knocked-Out Teeth), as are some toothaches (see Toothache). Tooth decay, which often leads to toothache and tooth loss, can be largely prevented with good oral hygiene, which helps remove plaque and prevent tartar buildup.

Plaque is a filmlike substance composed of bacteria, saliva, food debris, and dead cells. It occurs in everyone. Plaque is continually being deposited on teeth, day and night. After a tooth is cleaned, plaque develops on the surface of the tooth within about 24 hours. After about 72 hours, the plaque starts to harden and becomes tartar. Because plaque can encourage growth of the kind of bacteria that leads to tooth decay, it needs to be removed by daily brushing and flossing.

Tartar (calculus) is hardened (calcified) plaque that forms a white covering at the base of the teeth, particularly the tongue side of the front lower teeth and the cheek side of the upper molars (the teeth at the back of the mouth). Because tartar is formed from plaque, daily brushing to remove plaque can significantly reduce the buildup of tartar. However, once tartar has formed, it can be adequately removed only by a dentist or dental hygienist.

Although a healthy mouth can be maintained with meticulous brushing and flossing, limiting sugar intake and using fluoridated water also help reduce the risk of tooth decay.

The Language of Dentists

What Most People Call It

What Dentists Call It

Adult tooth

Permanent tooth

Baby tooth

Deciduous tooth

Back teeth

Molars and premolars




Orthodontic bands and wires or appliances







Eye teeth

Canines or cuspids



Front teeth

Incisors and canines



Gum disease

Periodontal disease, periodontitis, or gingivitis


Cleft lip

Laughing gas

Nitrous oxide

Lower jaw



Complete or partial denture (removable)

Roof of the mouth


Side teeth

Bicuspids or premolars

Silver filling

Amalgam restoration



Uneven bite


Upper jaw



Pain affecting an individual tooth (toothache) is probably the most recognized symptom of a tooth disorder (see Toothache). A tooth may be painful all the time or only under certain circumstances, as when chewing or when tapped by a dental instrument. Pain in a tooth suggests tooth decay or gum disease. However, pain may also result when roots are exposed, when people chew too forcefully or grind their teeth (bruxism), or when a tooth is fractured. Sinus congestion can cause similar symptoms of pain in the area of the upper teeth.

Worn-down or loose teeth can be a symptom of gum disease or bruxism (see Teeth Grinding), a disorder characterized by frequent clenching or grinding of the teeth. Bruxism occurs mostly during sleep, so that the person is unaware of it, but it may also occur during the day. People who have bruxism must concentrate on not clenching or grinding their teeth during the day. Bruxism may lead to attrition. Attrition is the wearing away of the biting surfaces of the teeth. Attrition can also be caused by chewing abrasive foods or tobacco or by the wear that accompanies aging. Attrition may make chewing less effective.

Abnormally shaped teeth can be a symptom of genetic diseases, hormonal disorders, or infections acquired before teeth erupt. Teeth can be misshapen due to fractures or chipping caused by trauma to the mouth.

Abnormal tooth color is not the same as the darkening or yellowing of teeth that occurs as people grow older or expose their teeth to staining substances, such as coffee, tea, and cigarette smoke. Graying of a tooth may be a symptom of a previous infection within the tooth that has seriously damaged the pulp, which is the living center of the tooth. The same may occur when a permanent tooth replaces an infected baby tooth. Permanent discoloration of the teeth may occur if people took tetracycline before age 9 years or if their mothers took tetracycline during the second half of pregnancy. Excess fluoride ingestion during childhood can cause mottling of the hard outer surface of the tooth (the enamel).

Abnormal tooth enamel may be due to a diet containing insufficient vitamin D. Abnormal enamel may also be the result of a childhood infection (such as measles or chickenpox) occurring when the permanent teeth were forming. Abnormal enamel may also be due to gastroesophageal reflux or repeated vomiting, as occurs in bulimia nervosa, because the stomach acid dissolves the surface of the teeth. Chronic snorting of cocaine and use of methamphetamines can cause abnormal changes in enamel. Swimmers who spend a lot of time in overchlorinated pools can lose tooth enamel, as can people who work with acids. Excess fluoride ingestion (fluorosis) during childhood can cause mottling of the enamel. Damaged tooth enamel can allow bacteria to more easily invade the tooth and form a cavity.

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