3 Stages of Tooth Decay, Explained

By: Dr. Elizabeth Eggert

Brush to avoid tooth decayTooth decay occurs when acids wear away the outer layer of the tooth and penetrate the soft, inner tissue, causing an infection that requires advanced dental care. But since decay occurs in three stages, it’s possible to reverse the effects of decay if it’s caught early enough. That’s why regular visits to your dentist are so important.

Bacteria Causes Tooth Decay

Before we explain the three stages of tooth decay, let’s take a look at what causes tooth decay in the first place. Your teeth are covered in a hard, protective layer called enamel. They’re also covered in bacteria (gross, but true). The bacteria live in a sticky substance called plaque and eat the sugars in your food. As they digest the sugars, the bacteria create acid. If you don’t brush and floss the plaque away, the acid will stick to and erode the enamel on your teeth.  It is also important to note that if your saliva contains an excessive amount of acid from other sources, such as foods, drinks, or reflux, this makes the cavity-causing bacteria even more active in attacking your teeth.

Tooth Decay Stage 1: Dull Spots on the Tooth

The first sign of tooth decay is a dull spot on your tooth. Often, this dull spot is only visible to your dentist, which is why it’s important to get regular check-ups. The spot may be dull white or brown, or show up as a shadow or weak spot on an x-ray.

At this stage, decay is often reversible with meticulous cleaning techniques such as brushing and flossing. Once the plaque is scrubbed away, the saliva helps to repair the tooth enamel. Adding extra fluoride, like an over the counter fluoride rinse or a prescription fluoride toothpaste also helps with the rebuilding of enamel. If left unattended, decay will continue until it enters the soft layer under the enamel, the dentin.

Tooth Decay Stage 2: Cavity Formation in the Dentin

Once decay erodes the enamel, it enters the softer layer of the tooth called the dentin. It can take a while for decay to reach stage two, but sometimes it occurs quickly. Once it does, the decay has become a cavity and the decay process is no longer reversible. At this stage, you need help from your dentists at Eggert Family Dentistry to place a filling or crown.  If not treated in this stage, a tooth can easily start to ache.

Tooth Decay Stage 3: Pulp Changes

If not treated in the dentin stage or if treated too late in the dentin stage, the decay will reach the very inside of the tooth called the pulp, where the tooth’s blood vessels and nerves are located.  At this point, the bacteria starts forming a tooth abscess. This infection can become very painful, but oddly can sometimes occur with very little or no pain. Regardless, the dentists at Eggert Family Dentistry can help you save your tooth by treating the tooth with a root canal. Root canals, unfortunately, have gotten a bad reputation, but we have seen many patients thankful for the treatment, often reporting “Oh I didn’t know it was so easy!”

Treating a tooth with an abscess is very important.  Without care, the infection can spread to surrounding tissue and eventually to other areas of your body. This type of infection is a serious medical condition and requires immediate treatment.

This may all sound a bit scary, but we are here to help you stay as healthy as possible.  We already talked about taking great care of your teeth at home, but you can also be sure to eat calcium-rich foods to help strengthen your enamel and drink lots of water to wash away sugars and acids. Of course, it also helps to minimize the sugars and acids you ingest.  And, we can’t emphasize enough, regular visits with us at Eggert Family Dentistry will help us stop the bacteria in the earliest stage possible.

To schedule your appointment, email Eggert Family Dentistry or call (651) 482-8412 today.

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