Is that spot on your tooth a cavity— or something else?
Knowing what the different stages of a cavity look like can help you decide whether or not you need to book a quick trip to the dentist.
Unfortunately, you’ll find that, in most cases, a stain on your teeth is a sign of a cavity.
Or at least a developing one.
Here’s what the different cavity stages look like and how your dentist can treat them.
RELATED: WHAT IS DENTAL EROSION?
The 4 Stages of a Cavity
So, when it comes to cavities, there are a few stages that a tooth can go through.
Your cavities’ early stages start when the bacteria in your mouth begin to produce acid. This is what dissolves the outer layer of your tooth, called the enamel.
The next stage is when the acid fully dissolves through the enamel and into the next layer, called the dentin. At this point, the cavity will likely appear as a small, dark spot on the tooth.
This is called a “minor cavity” and can often be treated with a filling.
If you ignore Stage 2, the bacteria continue to dissolve the tooth until it reaches the innermost layer, called the pulp. This is when the tooth may become sensitive to hot or cold temperatures and can cause pain.
This is called a “moderate to severe cavity” and will likely require a root canal.
Finally, if you don’t go to the dentist to treat your cavity, it can lead to an abscess, which is a painful infection at the tooth’s root. This is considered an “advanced cavity” and may require a tooth extraction.
As you can tell, the sooner you treat your cavity, the less invasive (and expensive) it will be. View the cavities stages below to see where yours might be.
What Cavities Look Like
A cavity can look a few different ways, depending on its stage.
In the early stages, it might not be visible at all. However, you may as see “white spot lesions” on your teeth. This is subtle, yet noticeable discoloration of your teeth.
According to Colgate, these white spots can be caused by fluorosis (overexposure of fluoride to the teeth) or demineralization. The latter “creates white areas of decalcification of the enamel on teeth, resulting from the accumulation of bacterial plaque.”
At stage 2. you might see a small, dark spot on your tooth as it progresses. This would be a minor cavity.
At stage 3, the bacteria will continue to spread, and your cavities can look like a bigger hole in your tooth. This would be a moderate to severe cavity.
At stage 4, the cavity is in the final stage. If it doesn’t crack or chip completely, it might cause an abscess. This is a painful infection at the root of the tooth and will likely require tooth extraction.
So, to sum up, a cavity can look like a small dark spot, a bigger hole, or a painful infection.
What Causes Cavities?
Cavities are caused by a buildup of bacteria in your mouth. When you eat or drink things with sugar, the bacteria in your mouth feast on them and produce acid. This acid can dissolve the outer layer of your tooth, called the enamel, and create a hole known as a cavity.
Another major cause of cavities is poor oral hygiene. By not brushing and flossing regularly, bacteria and plaque can build up on your teeth and start to dissolve the enamel.
Other factors that can increase your risk of cavities include dry mouth, which can be a side effect of certain medications or medical conditions and not visiting the dentist regularly for check-ups and cleanings.
To sum up, any one or more of these can cause cavities:
- Sugar, acid foods and drinks, and other foods that are bad for your teeth
- Poor oral hygiene
- Dry mouth and certain medications
It’s important to brush and floss regularly, limit sugary foods and drinks, and see your dentist for regular check-ups to keep your teeth healthy and cavity-free!
How Cavities are Fixed
When it comes to fixing cavities, the treatment depends on how severe it is.
- Filing: If it’s in the early stages, your dentist might be able to repair it with a filling. This is where they remove the decayed part of the tooth and fill the hole with a material like composite resin or amalgam (silver fillings).
- Crown: If the cavity is more severe and has reached the next layer of the tooth, called the dentin, your dentist will likely recommend a crown. This cap covers the entire tooth and is made of materials like porcelain or metal.
- Root Canal: If the cavity has reached the innermost layer, called the pulp, causing pain or sensitivity, a root canal might be necessary. This is a procedure where the dentist removes the infected pulp and replaces it with a filling material.
- Tooth Extraction: Finally, tooth extraction may be the only option if the cavity is very advanced and causing an abscess.
How Cavities are Filled
When filling cavities, your dentist might use a few different options.
- Composite filling: Made of a tooth-colored resin material that can match your tooth’s color. Dentists use this filling often for cavities on the front teeth because it’s less noticeable.
- Amalgam filling: Made of a mixture of metals, including silver. These silver fillings are more durable than composite fillings but are more noticeable.
For both options, the process is pretty similar.
- Your dentist will numb the area around the cavity with a local anesthetic and then use a drill or air abrasion instrument to remove the decayed part of the tooth.
- Then, they’ll clean the area and fill it with the chosen material.
- Your dentist shapes and polishes the filling, making it look and feel like a natural tooth.
It’s important to know that, after a filling, you might feel sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures for a few days, but that should go away.
Can Cavities Be Reversed?
In some cases, you can reverse cavities at home! But it really depends on how severe they are.
If the cavity is in the early stages, and the damage is limited to the tooth’s enamel, it might be possible to reverse it with good oral hygiene and changes in diet.
- Brushing and flossing regularly.
- Limiting sugary and acidic foods.
- Using fluoride products.
- Visiting the dentist for regular check-ups.
However, once your cavity progresses and reaches the tooth’s dentin layer, most dentists consider it irreversible damage. It will require a filling or other treatment to fix it. Also, if the cavity reaches the tooth’s innermost layer and it’s causing pain or sensitivity, a root canal is the treatment of choice. Your dentist will classify your cavity as irreversible due to the damage.