5 Stages of Tooth Decay and How to Treat Each

In addition to preventing periodontal disease, combating tooth decay is one of the primary reasons patients should brush and floss twice a day while also keeping regular appointments for dental cleanings and examinations.

What Is Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay is a common type of damage that can happen to teeth that, left untreated, can result in cavities, infections and abscesses, and even tooth loss.

What Causes Tooth Decay?

Harmful bacteria live inside all of our mouths. The species of bacteria that thrive inside plaque (the sticky stuff that accumulates on teeth) feed on the sugars in our diets and produce acidic waste that eats away at the enamel and other hard mineral structures of the teeth.

The acids produced by bacteria are primarily responsible for tooth decay. However, other factors can contribute, too. These include eating a diet that’s high in acidic and sugary foods and drinks, in addition to practicing poor oral hygiene that allows plaque and tartar to accumulate and remain on the surfaces of the teeth.

The 5 Stages of Tooth Decay and How to Treat Them

The type of severe tooth decay that leads to the loss of teeth doesn’t happen overnight. Tooth decay progresses through five stages, and each should be addressed and treated differently.

1. Initial Demineralization

The outer layer of the teeth is called enamel. It’s a type of tissue – the hardest in your body – that’s composed of minerals like calcium and fluoride. Although enamel is tough, it is still vulnerable.

When exposed to the acids produced by bacteria and the acids in foods and drinks, the enamel loses some of its minerals and becomes demineralized. When initial demineralization occurs, a white spot that’s visible to the naked eye usually appears on the surface of a tooth.

Treatment for Demineralization

Thankfully, demineralization can be reversed with both at-home care and in-office dental treatments. The best way to treat initial demineralization is with a professional fluoride treatment in addition to at-home fluoride care with mouthwash or toothpaste that contains fluoride.

The application of fluoride helps to remineralize tooth enamel, restoring the tooth’s protective surface.

2. Enamel Decay

If white spots are left untreated, tooth enamel begins to decay. At this stage of tooth decay, the white spots on teeth begin turning a darker, brownish color. When enamel decays, cavities (also called dental caries) form on the surface of the teeth.

Treatment for Enamel Decay

This stage of tooth decay is treated with fillings. To arrest tooth decay and prevent further damage from occurring, a dentist must drill, clean, and fill tooth cavities.

Depending on the size and location of the filling, a variety of materials can be used. In modern dentistry, cavities are usually filled with materials that match the color of the patient’s natural teeth.

3. Dentin Decay

The layer of the tooth just beneath the enamel is called dentin. When tooth decay reaches the dentin, it moves at a much faster rate because dentin is softer than enamel. Once tooth decay reaches the dentin, a patient might also experience pain or sensitivity because dentin contains tubes that lead to the tooth’s nerve root.

Treatment for Dentin Decay

The treatment for dentin decay depends on how far the decay has progressed into the tooth. If diagnosed early, dentin decay can usually be treated with a tooth filling the same way enamel decay is treated.

If the decay, however, has progressed significantly, then the patient might also require a cap or crown to support the tooth’s significantly damaged structure.

4. Pulp Damage

The innermost layer of a tooth is called the pulp. The pulp contains the tooth’s nerves and blood vessels that keep the tooth healthy, nourished, and alive. When tooth decay reaches this layer, patients often experience pain due to swelling inside the tooth.

Treatment for Pulp Damage

When tooth decay causes pulp damage, patients typically require a root canal. During a root canal procedure, the dentist removes the damaged pulp from the interior of the tooth. The root cavity and interior of the tooth are then filled and the tooth is covered with a cap or crown to support its structure and preserve the natural tooth.

5. Abscess

When a tooth has pulp damage, bacteria can enter the interior of the tooth, causing an infection. This infection can lead to an increase in local inflammation and the formation of a pus pocket at the base of the tooth. This is called an abscess.

Abscesses can cause pain, swelling, and fever. Additionally, they can lead to jawbone damage and bacteria entering the bloodstream and spreading throughout the body.

Treatment for an Abscess

When a patient has an abscess, our dentist will usually prescribe antibiotics to address the bacterial infection.

Abscesses can sometimes be treated with a root canal that removes the pulp of the tooth and also all of the infected tissues. If an abscess has progressed too far, the patient might need to have their tooth and all the infected tissues extracted.

In the event a tooth must be extracted, our dentist always discusses tooth replacement options with patients.

Keep Your Tooth Decay in Check With Our Dentists in Central Virginia

In addition to eating a healthy diet and brushing and flossing your teeth twice a day, you can also prevent tooth decay with regular dental appointments. During a preventative dental appointment, our dentists will clean and examine your teeth and gums to identify any signs of tooth decay, evaluate the stage of tooth decay, and recommend a variety of treatment options to arrest the decay and restore your teeth.

To learn more about the importance of preventative dental care and how it can protect you from tooth decay and the dangers of periodontal disease, we welcome you to schedule your next dental appointment at Goochland Dentistry.

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