Poor oral hygiene can cause problems ranging from cavities and tooth sensitivity to advanced gum disease. However, proper oral hygiene and regular checkups can easily prevent most dental problems.

Oral health problems can cause a significant burden on a person’s health, relationships, and overall well-being. Despite this, many people minimize the importance of oral and dental health. The American Dental Association estimates around 100 million people in the United States do not see a dentist every year.

This article discusses oral health, general symptoms of dental issues, and common dental problems. It also examines how to prevent dental problems, how to maintain good oral health, and when to see a dentist.

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Oral health is the overall health of the teeth, gums, and mouth. People typically use the term “dental problems” to refer to conditions that affect oral health.

Dental problems include cavities, tooth erosion, gum infections, and gum diseases. They can cause pain and discomfort, may affect a person’s ability to eat, and may have a negative impact on an individual’s self-esteem.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dental diseases are among the most common chronic diseases worldwide. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 estimated that around 3.5 billion people experience oral disorders. Of these, dental cavities are the most common.

Symptoms can vary depending on the cause. However, common symptoms of dental problems include:

Below is a list of common dental problems, their causes, and treatment options.

Tooth cavities

Tooth cavities, also called tooth decay or dental caries, develop when a sticky colorless-to-yellow film of bacteria called plaque forms on the tooth’s surface. Sugars in food change into acids that damage and destroy the hard outer covering of teeth, which is known as enamel. This environment makes it easier for plaque to develop.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 9 in 10 adults have tooth decay. Dentists diagnose tooth decay by taking X-rays, using dental instruments to inspect and check for soft areas in teeth, and asking about pain and sensitivity.

People can help prevent tooth decay by:

  • brushing teeth twice a day with a soft brush and fluoride toothpaste
  • flossing daily
  • limiting frequent snacking and sipping of sugary drinks
  • using dental sealants

Dentists usually use fillings to treat cavities and prevent further damage.

Gum disease

Mild gum disease, called gingivitis, occurs when plaque accumulates between and around teeth and infects the gums, causing irritation and swelling. Gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, which can cause bleeding gums, painful chewing, receding gums, and tooth loss.

Based on a 6-year national survey, 4 in 10 adults ages 30 years and older in the U.S. had gum disease between 2009–2014.

Aside from prescribing antibiotics for tooth infection, dentists usually perform a deep-cleaning procedure that involves scaling and root planing to remove tartar and plaque to reverse gum disease. In some cases, a person may need surgery for advanced periodontitis.

Tooth erosion

Similar to tooth decay, tooth erosion happens when dietary acids cause enamel to wear away. Diets high in sugar and acids can promote dental erosion. People with dry mouth are also at a higher risk of tooth erosion as they do not have enough saliva to rinse away the acid.

A person can help prevent tooth erosion by following a balanced diet and seeking treatment for acid reflux or dry mouth.

Dentists can treat tooth erosion with tooth bonding, which involves applying resin to damaged or discolored teeth. They can also recommend using veneers or crowns to prevent further damage to the teeth. Unfortunately, the damage caused by tooth erosion is irreversible.

Cracked or chipped tooth

A tooth can crack, chip, or break due to chewing or biting hard foods, grinding teeth at night, or accidents and injuries.

Symptoms that can indicate a cracked or chipped tooth include:

  • sudden sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures
  • pain that comes and goes
  • pain when chewing

Dentists will inspect a person’s mouth to look and feel for cracks. They may also use a dental dye to see the damage better.

The treatment for cracked or chipped teeth varies. Dentists may use bonding, put a crown on a tooth, perform a root canal procedure, or extract the tooth, depending on the severity of the damage.

Tooth sensitivity

People with sensitive teeth may experience discomfort and pain when they eat cold or hot foods.

Tooth sensitivity can occur when the enamel of the teeth is damaged, allowing substances to reach the nerve endings.

Aside from sealants and fillings, using oral hygiene products for sensitive teeth may help.

Learn more about home remedies for sensitive teeth here.


Many people seek dental treatment to improve the appearance of their teeth. A person may have lower self-esteem due to crooked teeth, extra teeth (hyperdontia), or yellow-stained teeth.

Dentists may recommend the following treatments to enhance the appearance of a person’s teeth:

  • veneers
  • orthodontics
  • teeth whitening
  • dental implants
  • other cosmetic dental technologies or procedures

Impacted teeth

An impacted tooth is a tooth that has failed to erupt, usually due to lack of space. The impacted tooth may then move up against another tooth.

It can cause jaw and gum pain, bad breath, and an inability to open the mouth easily.

Dentists usually diagnose impacted teeth by taking a dental X-ray.

Depending on the affected tooth, a dentist may use eruption aids, remove teeth that may be blocking it, or remove it through extraction surgery.

Oral cancer

Oral cancer includes any cancer found in the mouth, including the lips, tongue, tonsils, and oropharynx.

Common symptoms include sores and lumps that do not heal.

Around one person dies from oral cancer every hour in the U.S., and the American Cancer Society estimates there will be about 54,010 new cases of oral cancer in 2021.

A person can reduce their risk for oral cancer by not smoking, not using smokeless tobacco, and limiting alcohol consumption. This cancer is curable if a doctor diagnoses it early, and regular dental checkups can help with early diagnosis.

A person can prevent dental problems by practicing regular oral hygiene. Tips include:

  • brushing teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste
  • flossing daily or using other cleaners that reach in between the teeth
  • limiting sugar intake
  • avoiding tobacco and smoking
  • regularly seeing the dentist
  • choosing water as the main beverage
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • using protective equipment to prevent facial injuries

Learn more about teeth and gum care here.

A person should contact a dentist if they notice any of the symptoms mentioned above, including toothache, swollen gums, and sudden sensitivity to cold and hot temperatures.

People who have received dental treatments such as fillings, crowns, dentures, and orthodontics should also regularly check in with their dentist to ensure that everything is as it should be.

Pregnant people should have regular dental checkups as pregnancy may worsen existing dental problems. Around 60–75% of pregnant people have gingivitis and are at risk of cavities.

Most dental problems are also related to chronic conditions. A person with other medical conditions or who is undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy should include a dentist in their medical team. Individuals should immediately contact their dentist if they notice any of the following symptoms:

  • jaw pain
  • gum problems
  • dry mouth
  • difficulty when eating
  • presence of mouth sores and spots

Dental problems are common health conditions that many people ignore. Dental problems affect a person’s nutrition, self-esteem, and overall health and well-being. They may also be symptoms of an underlying medical condition or cause chronic problems if left untreated.

A person can prevent many dental problems by following good oral hygiene practices, such as regular brushing, limiting sugar intake, and regular dental checkups.