What Are the Stages of Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay affects the vast majority of Americans, but that doesn’t mean this condition is normal. Your teeth are strong and are meant to last a lifetime, so taking care of them is of the utmost importance.

Cavities that result from tooth decay don’t form overnight. There are stages of cavity formation that happen before you notice pain or that gaping hole in one of your teeth. This is why visiting your dentist is so important—they’re experts at spotting tooth decay before it has a chance to become a full-blown cavity!

Here are the stages of tooth decay that will form a cavity if left untreated.


Your enamel relies on minerals to stay strong. This is why certain nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D can help strengthen tooth enamel while harmful foods such as those that contain sugar will weaken tooth enamel.

In fact, tooth enamel is porous, so acidic substances can weaken tooth enamel for periods of time—this is why waiting for 30 minutes to brush after a meal is important.

When demineralization of the enamel happens, this means your enamel has lost some of its nutrients, such as calcium, and is now weakened by this as well as plaque. The enamel will wear away in a process called demineralization. Tooth decay is still preventable at this stage in the process.

Demineralization will often manifest as white areas on the teeth—don’t get this confused with dental fluorosis. These white spots may actually mean a cavity is on the way!

Enamel Damage

Now that the enamel has been demineralized, it will actually start to deteriorate. At this stage in the process, healthy minerals aren’t able to restore the enamel to its original state. The decay will continue without treatment, and you may see the white spot turn into a brownish area where the enamel is being eaten away by plaque, bacteria, and harmful acids.

During this stage, your cavity will be visible on an x-ray and your dentin will also become exposed, which can result in increased sensitivity and perhaps pain. A filling can treat your cavity at this point to protect the tooth from further damage.

Soft Tissue Damage

After the decay has eaten through the enamel, it’ll begin to affect the softer tissues of the tooth, such as your dentin and pulp. Dentin is the layer underneath your enamel. If the decay moves to this level, you may begin to experience pain and sensitivity and the only treatment that’ll remedy your tooth decay is a filling.

However, if your cavity is left untreated and continues to progress, it can eventually reach the pulp of your tooth. This is where all your nerve tissue lies and is essentially the heart of the tooth. If the decay reaches the pulp, an infection can quickly ensue and can cause a severe toothache as well as kill the nerve tissue inside the tooth.

If this happens, root canal therapy will likely be needed to save the tooth. Don’t wait to seek treatment if you suspect you have a cavity!

Visiting your dentist regularly can help you prevent tooth decay and catch your cavity in the demineralization process. Cavities are painful and often irreversible without a filling, so don’t wait to have your teeth checked out by a professional dentist!

What Are the Stages of Tooth Decay?
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What Are the Stages of Tooth Decay?
Cavities that result from tooth decay don’t form overnight. There are stages of cavity formation that happen before you notice pain or that gaping hole in one of your teeth.