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Dental negligence claims for tooth decay

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay, sometimes also known as dental caries, is one of the most common conditions to affect both adults and children in the UK and can cause tooth cavities that require fillings or other dental treatment. Some people are at higher risk of developing decay than others and it’s commonly caused by plaque.

Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that constantly forms on teeth and if it isn’t removed by regular brushing and other oral hygiene techniques, tooth decay will follow.

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What is tooth decay caused by?

The bacteria in plaque react with sugar in the foods and drinks we consume to produce acids. Over time, the acid in plaque can begin to breakdown the hard outer-surface of the tooth (the enamel) to form a cavity. At this stage, you may not have any symptoms at all. If left untreated, the cavity can progress to the deeper, softer layer of the tooth (dentine). At this stage, you may experience sensitivity to hot and cold when eating and drinking. Finally, decay can then expose the nerves (the pulp) inside a tooth. Exposure of the pulp to bacteria may cause a dental abscess, which can be very painful.

Tooth decay symptoms

The symptoms or signs of tooth decay can vary somewhat, depending on the extent and severity of the issue. Often the first sign people notice is a sensitivity to hot or cold food or drink. If you have severe tooth decay, you’re likely to experience pain and potentially abscesses.

Tooth decay pain is likely to be more noticeable when eating or drinking, but can also show itself through chronic toothache, with pain that comes and goes persistently and gets worse over time if not treated.

The symptoms of tooth decay under a filling or crown are likely to be similar, with sensitivity and pain being the most likely signs that bacteria has been able to enter the tooth again and create a new cavity under the filling or crown.

In severe cases, tooth decay can weaken teeth to the point that they may crack or fragment.

How to get rid of tooth decay

Tooth decay treatment usually involves a filling, root canal treatment or extraction of the affected tooth or teeth. The treatment you will need will depend on the extent of the dental decay you have and your dentist should talk through treatment options with you.

Tooth decay removal in the form of a filling means that the decayed part of the tooth must be removed, usually by drilling, and a filling will replace it. If this is not viable, due to the extent of the dental tooth decay, then root canal treatment or extraction might be the only options left available to you.

Are there different types of tooth decay?

Whilst there are no different types of dental decay as such, tooth decay can form on and in different areas of the teeth, including:

  • On the biting surfaces of teeth
  • Tooth decay between teeth
  • On root surfaces
  • Around existing fillings and crowns (recurrent decay)
  • Especially on back teeth that are harder to keep clean

How quickly does tooth decay progress?

The length of time it takes for tooth decay to progress to a stage where a cavity is formed and treatment is required will vary from case to case, as the conditions in people’s mouths changes frequently.

The progression of the decay is affected very much by oral hygiene practices. Someone with very early tooth decay could take many months or even years before they need a filling. However, as decay is permanent, it’s important to take action and not let decay progress to this point whenever possible.

What happens when tooth decay isn’t effectively treated?

Once the decay has advanced, it sometimes requires a filling to treat the cavity and ensure that the tooth is not further damaged. However, if the decay has advanced beyond the point that this is possible, it can mean that teeth might need root canal treatment, crowns to be fitted, or even for teeth to be extracted altogether.

How to stop tooth decay

The best way to stop tooth decay from progressing any further is to practice good oral hygiene. Using a fluoride toothpaste when brushing twice a day, along with reducing sugar in your diet, can make a big difference to the progression of dental decay.

What to do if you have tooth decay

If you already have tooth decay that requires treatment like a filling, root canal procedure or extraction, ensuring that you follow this treatment with good oral hygiene practices and a low-sugar diet can help to minimise the chances of experiencing tooth decay again in the future.

Why might you make a compensation claim for tooth decay?

If your dentist has been negligent in your care regarding tooth decay, and this results in pain, suffering or financial loss, you may be eligible to make a claim for compensation.

If you have tooth decay that has not been correctly diagnosed or effectively treated by your dentist, despite regular visits, the problem can progress to a stage where you need to have restorative dental treatment, or you may even have teeth that cannot be saved and require extraction.

It might be that your dentist missed a cavity on several visits, which resulted in the problem getting much worse, or it could be that your dentist missed tooth decay altogether, meaning that you were not treated when you should have been, and this made your condition worse.

Another instance where you might be able to claim compensation is if your dentist didn’t fill the cavity correctly when originally treating your tooth decay and was negligent with your care. If this has meant that you’ve experienced recurrent decay under fillings and required more restorative treatment, which would have been avoidable if there was no negligence originally, you might be able to make a claim.

What can my dentist do to prevent my tooth decay?

Your dentist should carefully examine your teeth to check for decay. Decay can sometimes be detected using vision alone, but as part of your regular check-ups and visits to see them, your dentist should spot the early signs that decay is starting to take hold. Once any early signs of tooth decay have been found by your dentist, they should inform you and make sure that you are aware of the measures to take that can help stop the progression of decay further. Your dentist should also take x-rays when necessary (there are guidelines your dentist can follow that recommend the intervals at which x-rays should be taken). The x-rays can detect decay in between your teeth, and they can also help determine the extent of any decay. Your dentist can clean your teeth to remove plaque, provide tailored instruction on how to keep your teeth clean and give you advice on your diet. They will advise you on how regularly you should attend for check-ups – the frequency is determined by how ‘at-risk’ you are of developing decay.

How can tooth decay be prevented?


For most people, the presence and progression of decay is heavily influenced by their lifestyle, so there are a number of ways to help prevent the issue or stop it from getting worse.

  • Good oral hygiene: Brush your teeth twice a day for two-three minutes using toothpaste that contains fluoride
  • You should also floss in between your teeth (this particularly helps prevent decay in between your teeth)
  • Limit the frequency and amount of sugary food and drinks you consume
  • Visit your dentist regularly

Treating tooth decay

If your dentist detects decay at an early stage, the treatment is simple and non- invasive. He or she will advise you on the measures that you can take to help prevent the decay from progressing further. A fluoride varnish may be applied to help stop the decay progressing. If the decay is detected at a later stage, your dentist will need to place a filling after decay has been removed. Larger cavities may need a crown. If decay has reached a very advanced stage, you may need root canal treatment or even tooth extraction.

How much compensation could I get for a tooth decay claim?

The compensation that you may be awarded, if your claim is successful, will depend on the individual circumstances of your case and the extent to which you have suffered as a result of your dentist’s negligence. If your claim goes to court and is successful, the judge will decide on the compensation amount to be paid. However, most dental negligence cases are settled before they reach this point. Your legal representatives should discuss the various options with you at every stage of your claim, to help you get the most positive outcome possible.

What can I do if I think I might have a dental negligence claim for tooth decay?

If you think that you might be eligible to make a dental negligence claim because your dentist didn’t properly diagnose or treat your tooth decay, the first thing you should do is speak to legal experts to find out if your claim might be valid. You can find out what your options are and find out how to proceed with a claim. You can see more about the process of making a dental negligence claim here.

How do I know if I have tooth decay?

It can be difficult to tell if you have tooth decay in the early stages as there may not be any symptoms for you to notice. This is one reason why it’s important to go for regular check-ups with your dentist, so that they can spot the signs early even if you are not yet feeling any ill effects. As tooth decay advances, you will usually start to notice some symptoms, which can include:

  • Visible staining or small pits/holes on teeth that are visible when you look at your teeth in the mirror
  • Toothache without an apparent cause
  • Sensitivity to sweet, hot or cold drinks or food
  • Pain when biting down as you eat
  • Broken or damaged teeth

If the problem becomes severe, you might experience symptoms that interfere with your usual daily activities, making chewing and eating difficult, causing dental abscesses, or even causing you to lose teeth entirely.


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