Tooth decay is damage that occurs to your teeth, which can potentially result in cavities, dental abscesses, or even tooth loss. It’s caused by the activity of certain species of bacteria that can live in dental plaque.
The bacteria in plaque can convert the sugars present in your food into acids. If plaque is allowed to build up over time, these acids can begin to damage your teeth.
This is why good oral hygiene is a vital part of preventing tooth decay.
Tooth decay occurs in several stages. Below, we’ll explore each of these stages, discuss how tooth decay is treated, and give you some tips on how to prevent it from happening.
Stages of tooth decay
Dental plaque is important to the tooth decay process. Plaque is a colorless, sticky film that covers the surfaces of your teeth. It’s made up of bacteria, food particles, and saliva.
If your teeth aren’t cleaned regularly, plaque can begin to build up. It can also harden over time, forming something called tartar. The presence of tartar can help to further protect bacteria, making them more difficult to remove.
Generally speaking, there are five stages of tooth decay. Let’s examine them in more detail below.
Stage 1: Initial demineralization
The outer layer of your teeth is composed of a type of tissue called enamel. Enamel is the hardest tissueTrusted Source in your body and is mostly made up of minerals.
However, as a tooth is exposed to acids produced by plaque bacteria, the enamel begins to lose these minerals.
When this occurs, you may see a white spot appear on one of your teeth. This area of mineral loss is an initial sign of tooth decay.
Stage 2: Enamel decay
If the process of tooth decay is allowed to continue, enamel will break down further. You may notice that a white spot on a tooth darkens to a brownish color.
As enamel is weakened, small holes in your teeth called cavities, or dental caries, can form. Cavities will need to be filled by your dentist.
Stage 3: Dentin decay
Dentin is the tissue that lies under the enamel. It’s softer than enamel, which makes it more sensitive to damage from acid. Because of this, tooth decay proceeds at a faster rate when it reaches the dentin.
Dentin also contains tubes that lead to the nerves of the tooth. Because of this, when dentin is affected by tooth decay, you may begin experiencing sensitivity. You may notice this particularly when having hot or cold foods or drinks.
Stage 4: Pulp damage
The pulp is the innermost layer of your tooth. It contains the nerves and blood vessels that help to keep the tooth healthy. The nerves present in the pulp also provide sensation to the tooth.
When damage to the pulp happens, it may become irritated and start to swell. Because the surrounding tissues in the tooth can’t expand to accommodate this swelling, pressure may be placed on the nerves. This can lead to pain.
Stage 5: Abscess
As tooth decay advances into the pulp, bacteria can invade and cause an infection. Increased inflammation in the tooth can lead to a pocket of pus forming at the bottom of your tooth, called an abscess.
Tooth abscesses can cause severe pain that may radiate into the jaw. Other symptoms that may be present include swelling of the gums, face or jaw, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in your neck.
A tooth abscess requires prompt treatment, as the infection can spread into the bones of your jaw as well as other areas of your head and neck. In some cases, treatment may involve removing the affected tooth.
Tooth decay in children
Children can also experience tooth decay. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, tooth decay is one of the most common chronic childhood conditions in the United States.
Children also may be more likelyTrusted Source to experience tooth decay than adults. This is because the enamel of a child’s baby teeth is thinner and more sensitive than adult enamel.
Like it does in adults, tooth decay happens when bacteria break down sugars into acids, which damage tooth tissues.
Because of this, it’s important to make sure your child doesn’t consume too much sugary foods or drinks and that their teeth are brushed regularly.
Even though baby teeth are eventually lost, keeping them healthy is still vital. Not only do children need baby teeth for chewing and speaking, they also act as placeholders for adult teeth. If baby teeth are lost too early due to decay, adult teeth may not come in properly.
The images below illustrate the different stages of tooth decay. You’ll see that as tooth decay progresses, more and more tissues of the tooth are affected.