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5 Stages of Tooth Decay

Did you know there are five distinct stages of tooth decay? And that in the first stage of decay, you can actually take steps to reverse the progression of decay?  Understanding how a cavity progresses can help you prevent each successive stage from occurring.

Stage One: White Spots

In stage one, the tooth begins to show signs of strain from the attack of sugars and acids, and white spots will begin to materialize just below the surface of the enamel. These white spots are can be easy to miss because they’re likely to occur on your molars. The dental exam Dr. Morrison performs at each check-up is designed to catch these early cavities. In this first stage of decay, whether you’re a child or an adult, the application of fluoride via fluoride treatments, your toothpaste and your local water supply can stop a cavity from penetrating through the enamel and reaching its second stage. Even the saliva in your mouth and the foods you eat help to re-mineralize a tooth in jeopardy.  At this stage, the cavity can be repaired without the need for a filling.

Stage Two: Enamel Decay

Stage two marks the beginning of the end for the surface enamel that is being attacked. Initially, the tooth erodes from the underside outward, so the outer enamel will still be intact for the first half of this second stage. Once the cavity breaks through the surface of the enamel, there is no turning back, and you or your child will need to have the cavity corrected with a filling.

Stage Three: Dentin Decay

If a cavity were to progress beyond stage two without you knowing, you’d probably become aware of it because it would start to cause some pain. At this level, the cavity begins to eat away at the second level of tooth material that lies beneath the enamel: the dentin. A filling can still be used to stop the onslaught of bacteria assaulting the tooth in order to prevent the cavity from reaching the tooth’s most critical component: the pulp. However, this filling will most likely be larger, more involved - and consequently more expensive - than taking care of the cavity at stage two.

Stage Four: Involvement of The Pulp

Once the cavity reaches the pulp, it’s going to hurt. A lot. So if you’ve unfortunately missed all the signs to this point, a screaming child or moaning teenager will certainly let you know there is a big problem. Stage four is serious, and a root canal is the only option of treatment at this stage, save for a complete extraction.

Stage Five: Tooth Abscess 

In the fifth and final stage of a cavity, the infection has reached the tip of the root and begun to infect the surrounding tissues and possibly the bone structure. Swelling would be commonplace and pain severe. In children (as well as adults) an abscess can actually be fatal if not dealt with immediately. A root canal or extraction would be the order of the day should decay reach this stage.

Cavities don’t happen overnight. They tend to form faster for young children, sometimes in just a few months, because their teeth have weaker enamel than for adults. It can take up to a year for the cavity to form in adults. Just remember, in the early stages, regular visits can stall and even reverse their progression, so coming in for regular cleaning and exams is a great idea. I've seen early treatment reverse cavities in many, many patients. And, if we told you that you have a cavity at a recent visit, please don't delay treatment, even if it doesn't hurt. If left untreated your cavity will only get worse. Possibly much worse.

Give us a call today to schedule your routine dental exam and cleaning so we can assure you that your teeth, or your kids' teeth, are healthy and cavity-free. You can reach our friendly staff at 919. 755. 3450, or go online to schedule your dental visit.