Are you aware of the fact that there are five distinct stages of tooth decay? It is in the first stage of tooth decay where you can actually take measures to reverse the progression of the disease? 

The first stage of decay is very crucial. Whether you are a child or an adult, the application of fluoride via your toothpaste, fluoride treatments and even the local water supply can stop your cavities from increasing. 

Fluoride is very helpful and can help your cavity from penetrating through the enamel and reaching its second stage. Do you know that the saliva in your mouth and the foods you eat daily can help to remineralize your tooth? But that’s just the first stage. What about the rest? 

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Here we understand how a tooth cavity progresses. We also discuss the steps you can take to prevent each successive stage from occurring in your children or other family members. Discussed below are also some tips on how to prevent it from happening.

Understanding the 5 Stages of Tooth Decay

Tooth decay is the damage caused to your teeth, which can potentially result in cavities, dental abscesses, or even the loss of your tooth. It is caused by the activity of certain species of bacteria that survive in the dental plaque. That is the reason good oral hygiene is a vital part of preventing tooth decay.

Dental plaque is most important to the tooth decay process. The bacteria present in your mouth convert the sugars present in your food into acids. If plaque is allowed to develop up over time, these acids can start to damage your teeth. Plaque is a sticky film, primarily colorless, that covers the surfaces of your teeth. It is made up of bacteria, food particles, and saliva.

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The treatment that your dentist will recommend for tooth decay will depend on its stage. If your teeth are not cleaned thoroughly, plaque will start to build up. It will harden over time, forming a coating called tartar. The presence of tartar will further protect the bacteria, making them more difficult to remove.

There are five stages of tooth decay, discussed in detail:

Stage 1: Initial demineralization

The outer layer of your teeth is composed of a tissue called enamel. Enamel is the hardest tissue found on your body and is mostly made up of minerals. However, your tooth is exposed to acids produced by plaque bacteria; your enamel slowly begins to lose these minerals.

When this happens, you might see a white spot appear on the surface of your teeth. This area where there is a mineral loss – is an initial sign of tooth decay. In this stage, your tooth begins to show signs of strain from the attack of acids and sugars and acids.

These white spots will then begin to materialize just below the surface of your enamel. These white spots are often unnoticeable – as they occur on your child’s molars. 

A dental exam by your dentist can only catch such cavities. At this stage, your cavity can be repaired without the need to excavate the tooth.

Stage 2: Enamel decay

If the process of tooth decay continues, your enamel will start breaking down further. You might notice that a white spot on your tooth darkens to a brownish color. 

During this process, your enamel is weakened and small holes in your teeth, called cavities or dental caries, start to form. Cavities can only be filled by your dentist.

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Stage two actually indicates the beginning of the surface enamel attacked. Initially, tooth erosion occurs from the underside outward. Resulting in the outer enamel being attached will still be intact till the next stage. 

Once your teeth cavity starts to break down the surface of the enamel, there is no turning back. Your only option left is to have the cavity corrected with a filling.

Stage 3: Dentin decay

If a cavity in your mouth or your child’s mouth progresses beyond stage two – then it would probably start to cause some pain. At this level, the cavity starts to eat away your second level of tooth material – that lies beneath the enamel: i.e. the dentin.

Dentin is the tissue that lies just under your enamel. It is softer compared to your enamel which makes it more sensitive to damage from acid. Because of this, your tooth decay at this stage proceeds at a faster pace when it reaches the dentin.

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The dentin also contains tubes that link to the nerves of your tooth. Because of this, when dentin gets affected by tooth decay, you may start experiencing teeth sensitivity. You may notice this particularly when you have hot or cold foods or drinks.

At this stage, the filling can still be used to stop the onslaught of bacteria damaging your tooth. In order to prevent the cavity from reaching your tooth’s most critical component, the pulp.

Stage 4: Pulp damage

Just note that once this cavity reaches your pulp, it is going to be painful. So if you’ve unfortunately missed all the above stages – your moaning teenager or screaming child will certainly let you know that there is a big problem. The pulp is the third innermost layer of your tooth. It contains the blood vessels and nerves that help to keep your tooth healthy. The nerves present in the pulp are responsible for providing sensation to your tooth.

When your pulp is damaged, it may become irritated and start to swell. As the surrounding tissues in the affected tooth can’t expand to accommodate this swelling, the pressure automatically builds upon the nerves. As a result, you might experience pain or toothache.

Yes, stage four is serious, and a root canal is the only option of treatment left at this stage. It is the only way to save your teeth from a complete tooth extraction. Your dentist might offer same-day treatment for root canals and crowns, making the process much less time consuming or painful. 

Stage 5: Abscess

This is the fifth and final stage of your cavity, and the infection has reached the tip of the root. Thus exciting and irritating the tip of your tooth’s structure. This will infect the surrounding tissues and possibly the jawbones. Severe pain and could be seen in the area. 

As your tooth decay becomes so bad that it advances into the pulp, then the bacteria can invade and cause an infection in the area. Increased plan and inflammation in your tooth can lead to a pocket of pus that forms at the bottom of your tooth. This condition is called an abscess which could lead to extraction. It is important to know that tooth abscess can be fatal if not dealt with immediately both in adults as well as in children.

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Tooth abscesses can cause severe pain that may radiate not only into the jaw but the whole face. Other symptoms that might be seen include swelling of the gums, jaw or face, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in your neck area.

In such a scenario, a tooth abscess requires prompt treatment. As there are chances of the infection to spread into the bones of your jaw as well as other areas of your neck and head. In some cases, your dentist might opt for a root canal treatment or remove the affected tooth. You should visit your dentist immediately in case you have severe toothache and inflammation. 

Tooth Decay Treatments

Several treatment options are available based on the progression of your tooth decay.

1 Initial demineralization – Using fluoride

It is the earliest stage of tooth decay that can be reversed before more permanent damage occurs. This is achieved by treating your teeth with fluoride.

You can receive fluoride treatment at your dentist’s office. It is applied to your teeth in the form of a gel. Fluoride will strengthen your enamel and make it more resistant to the acids produced by plaque bacteria.

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2 Enamel decay treatment – Teeth fillings

At this stage, tooth cavities are often present. Tooth filling is used to treat these cavities. During the process, your dentist will use a tool to clear away any decay. Then he will fill the hole with a material such as ceramic, resin or dental amalgam. 

3 Dentin decay treatment – Dental crown

If identified early, your dentist will treat your dentin decay with a filling. In more advanced cases, he will place dental crowns.

A dental crown is a tooth covering that protects the top portion of your tooth above the gums. Your dentist will clean the decayed area and then place the crown. 

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4 Pulp damage treatment – Root canal

When your tooth decay has reached the pulp, your dentist will suggest a root canal treatment. In a root canal, he will remove the damaged pulp. The cavity is then cleaned, filled and a crown is placed on your affected tooth.

5 Abscess treatment – Tooth extraction

If an abscess has formed on your tooth, your dentist would probably perform a root canal to remove the tooth infection and seal the tooth. Only in severe cases, your dentist will remove the affected tooth completely. He will also prescribe antibiotics to help treat your abscess. These are medicines that will kill the bacteria.

Tooth Decay Prevention

You should always remember that practicing good oral hygiene is very important in preventing tooth decay. Below are some tips:

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  • Visit your dentist regularly: Your dentist can correctly examine, identify and treat tooth decay before it gets worse. Just make sure to see your dentist for routine teeth cleanings and oral exams.
  • Brush your teeth: It is recommended that you brush your teeth at least twice every day. Try to use fluoride toothpaste.
  • Drink water from the tap: Most tap water generally contains fluoride. It can help keep your enamel strong and protect it from decay.
  • Limit sweets: Avoid consuming foods or beverages with a high amount of sugar like cookies, candies, and soft drinks.
  • Avoid snacking: You should aim to limit eating snacks in between meal times. Snacks can provide the bacteria in your mouth with even more sugars to convert into acids.
  • Ask about sealants: These are a thin coating of plastic that your dentist might apply on the tops of your back teeth or molars. Often food particles get trapped in the grooves in your molars. A sealant will help cover the surface of your molar, preventing decay.