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
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
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!
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!