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Your Guide to Tooth Decay Stages

Ever wonder why your dentist and hygienist constantly promote practices and products to prevent plaque buildup on your teeth? The reason is simple: Tooth decay begins with plaque, a thin film of bacteria that continuously builds up on the teeth.

If not stopped, plaque, or biofilm, plays havoc with your mouth in an ever-evolving manner:

  1. Plaque bacteria combine with sugar to produce acids in your mouth.
  2. If allowed to accumulate, the acids gradually damage tooth enamel and lead to cavities.
  3. If you don't treat the cavities, decay worsens over time. And more advanced tooth decay stages require more extensive treatments.

If plaque gets a toehold, be aware of the various stages of tooth decay. Even better, learn how you can join your dentist and hygienist in stopping plaque and tooth decay.

First Signs of Tooth Decay

When tooth decay first develops, it can look like a brown or white spot on the tooth. This discoloration occurs when the enamel softens.

Unfortunately, since early tooth decay might not have any symptoms, detection can only happen during a dental checkup. That's why it's important to schedule regular dentist visits.

Before you develop a cavity at this early stage, there's still a chance tooth decay can be stopped or even reversed. To accomplish this, your dentist might recommend treatments to:

  • Make the tooth enamel stronger with a product such as topical fluoride.
  • Protect the teeth with a product such as sealants

Tooth Decay Stages

If you don't seek treatment promptly for tooth decay, you might experience stages that require more intensive dental work, increased sensitivity, pain, and worse.

However, depending on what point your teeth are in a decay stage, there might be treatments available.

Cavity Stages: If early-stage tooth decay isn't treated, the softened enamel starts to break down, resulting in a cavity.

At this point, it might not be possible to reverse the damage to the tooth. However, your dentist can help you prevent further decay with various treatments.

If you think you have a cavity, see your dentist right away. Treatment depends on the size and location of the cavity.

Your dentist might recommend a filling, which involves removing the decayed portion of the tooth and restoring the area with a filling material. Larger cavities, though, might require crowns, tooth-colored caps that completely cover the teeth.

Dentin Decay Stages: If left untreated, your cavity can spread deeper into the tooth. It might reach the dentin, the sensitive tooth layer beneath the enamel.

You don't want the dentin decay to spread even further. If it does, dentin decay can reach the pulp, the location of your tooth's nerves, and blood vessels.

If the decay advances, the Mayo Clinic reports you might experience symptoms in the affected teeth such as:

  • Sensitivity or even pain when you consume sweet, hot, or cold foods and drinks
  • Toothaches or pain when you bite down
  • Visible as holes or pits as the decay worsens

Complications of Untreated Decay

If untreated decay symptoms are bad, the resulting complications might involve surgery or other invasive treatments.

If untreated, severe tooth decay can result in an infection. A pocket of pus, or abscess, might develop at the tip of the tooth root, explains the Mayo Clinic.

Symptoms of tooth abscesses can include pain, swelling, and fever, notes the American Dental Association. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the surrounding areas, including the jawbone.

Tooth loss is another possible complication of untreated decay.

Preventing Tooth Decay

Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of tooth decay with some lifestyle actions.

Start an oral hygiene routine: It only takes five minutes a day to spend on your teeth.

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss at least once a day.
  • Rinse when a fluoride mouthwash, especially if your dentist recommends it.

Eat a tooth-healthy diet: Food strategies, notes the University of Rochester Medical Center, can make a big difference in your oral health.

  • Eat fruits and vegetables, especially those of the fiber-rich variety, to get healthy saliva flowing.
  • Consume dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk. Another saliva generator, dairy, also supplies needed vitamins and minerals for tooth enamel.
  • Avoid sugary foods, such as cake and cookies. Can't avoid them? Then eat them during meals when your mouth makes more saliva, which helps in reducing acid. Also, brush after eating these foods.
  • Avoid starchy foods, such as chips, which can cling to teeth and contribute to plaque buildup. Can't avoid them? You know what to do: Brush after eating them.

Ask your dentist for more information about tooth-healthy food choices.

Have regular dental checkups: As you've read, these visits are crucial so your dentist can identify early-stage tooth decay and treat it before it gets worse.

However, if you suspect you might have a cavity now, see your dentist immediately. Oral care in the first stage of tooth decay is essential to your overall health.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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