Want to hear some good news? Teeth don’t decay overnight. And that means you can take steps to prevent decay before it starts. While few people enjoy thinking about cavities, understanding the stages of tooth decay can help you take charge of your oral health—especially the early stages of tooth decay!

Please note this article is not a substitute for personalized dental care. It is a supplement that may help you make the best health decisions.

Let’s Define Tooth Decay.

Tooth decay refers to damage to teeth caused by a specific species of bacteria that live in dental plaque. This bacteria converts sugars you consume into acids, which eventually damage the teeth.

So what’s dental plaque? It is a sticky film formed by the protein found in your saliva that metabolizes sugar in the mouth. This is one reason your dentist always advises you to limit sugary foods and drinks, such as soda, candy, and fruit juice. Steps you can take to prevent plaque build-up and decay include:

  • Limiting sugary foods and drinks. If you must indulge, do it during meal times shortly before you brush your teeth, and avoid sugary snacks between meals as much as possible.
  • Maintain consistent oral hygiene, including brushing your teeth and flossing as recommended.
  • See your dentist and dental hygienist on schedule for your examination and professional cleaning.

What Are the Early Stages of Tooth Decay?

Decay builds over time. Eventually, it may lead to cavities, abscesses, or even losing a tooth. As endodontists, our goal is to save your natural tooth whenever possible. The best way to protect your natural teeth is to minimize tooth decay from the get-go. If you can learn to recognize the early stages of tooth decay, then you can seek dental care as recommended.

Be on the lookout for these warning signs. Symptoms of tooth decay include:

  • Sudden tooth pain.
  • Sudden sensitivity to temperature or sweetness.
  • Dark spots on the teeth, and also new white spots on the teeth
  • A painful sensation when biting down.
  • Holes in the teeth, cavities, or caries.

Understanding the five stages of tooth decay may help you prevent dental extractions. Plus, we hope you’ll see exactly why endodontic treatment like a root canal is essential to help many patients.

Five Stages of Tooth Decay

Before we jump into your primer on tooth decay, let’s talk about the anatomy of your tooth. Your teeth are made up of three layers, including the enamel, dentin, and internal pulp. The five stages of decay travel through the layers. The deeper the decay, the more pain, and discomfort experienced. So the sooner you can catch it, the better!

Stage One: Demineralization

One of the early stages of tooth decay is demineralization. The acids from the foods you eat and drinks you sip wear down your tooth enamel. The enamel is the hardest part of your teeth and serves as protective armor made from minerals like calcium. The acids cause your enamel to lose some of its mineral content. This is why your dentist and dental hygienist recommends that you gently brush your teeth using a soft-bristled toothbrush and a toothpaste containing fluoride. Fluoride helps strengthen your tooth enamel.

Dentists often prescribe a fluoride mouthwash or other re-mineralization treatment as an early intervention when they notice this stage of dental decay.

Stage Two: Decay of Tooth Enamel

If the demineralization continues, your enamel starts to break down, leading to small cavities or dental caries. Daily brushing and flossing help prevent this, but this is also where your 6-month examinations and cleanings factor in.

If you see your dentist as recommended, they can identify cavities before they are too large and treat them early with a filling. Your dentist removes the decay during a filling and fills the tooth with resin, silver amalgam, gold, or ceramic restorations.

Stage Three: Decay of Dentin

Dentin is a softer tissue underneath the tooth enamel. It is more vulnerable to damage, and it decays faster than the stronger enamel. Since dentin contains sensitive nerves, you may feel increased sensitivity to temperature and some pain at this stage of the tooth decay process.

If dentin decay is identified early enough, your dentist may treat it with a dental filling. We hope this really emphasizes why your regular cleanings with your dentist are so important. However, if the damage has progressed too far, your dentist will probably need to remove the damaged tissue, fill the tooth, and apply a protective element like a crown over the remaining tooth.

Stage Four: Pulp Damage

The pulp is the soft center of the tooth containing a tiny network of blood vessels and nerves. These nerves and blood vessels normally keep your teeth healthy and are the source of any sensation you feel in the teeth.

Sadly, when decay leads to pulp damage, you can feel pain and discomfort like toothaches. The damaged pulp may swell, become inflamed or eventually become infected. A root canal might be the best intervention to prevent an abscess or tooth loss at this stage.

During a root canal, your dentist or endodontist will create a small opening in the tooth, remove the damaged pulp, thoroughly disinfect inside, refill the tooth replacing the pulp, and reseal the tooth. This procedure also involves a protective or restorative treatment, including a crown depending on which tooth and how strong it is.

Stage Five: Abscess

The fifth stage of tooth decay results in a dental abscess. This happens if the bacteria and decay reach into the pulp, causing an infection. The resulting inflammation leads to the formation of a pocket of pus at the bottom of the tooth. This is referred to as an abscess.

Some symptoms of an abscess include:

  • Pain that radiates to the jaw.
  • Swelling in the gums, jaw, or face.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Increased temperature or fever.

Some abscesses can be effectively treated with a root canal or other endodontic treatment. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the jaw, head, or neck areas. Sometimes the infected tooth may need to be extracted.

This is what endodontists strive to prevent by offering root canals and other restorative treatment for situations where a filling isn’t enough, yet extraction is not yet required. After all, once you extract your tooth, it’s gone. But a root canal may be able to preserve your natural tooth.

You Can Prevent or Reverse the Progression of Tooth Decay.

The stages of tooth decay can be scary and painful, but the good news is its progression can be prevented or slowed down by following your dentist’s dental hygiene recommendations.

In addition, early intervention and treatment halt the progression of decay, allowing for less invasive treatment options.

Even if you are at the point where the pulp is infected, seek treatment as early as possible. The earlier you do, the higher your chances are of a successful outcome. Sadly too many people procrastinate when it comes to their dental health. Don’t let this be you!

If you live in or near Charlotte and need a root canal or endodontic treatment, contact Ballantyne Endodontics today. The sooner we see you, the sooner we can help.