Understanding Tooth Decay Progression

Cavities affect most of us at some point in our lives. But despite its prevalence, many people may not realize that this tooth decay can cause serious and irreversible damage to their smiles.

A cavity is a stage of tooth decay, a deteriorating condition in the tooth, that will require treatment from a dentist to eradicate. Without dental attention, tooth decay will continue to spread and damage the tooth.

Treating this problem as soon as possible can preserve your dental structure. You can better identify and seek treatment for tooth decay when you know details about the way it advances. Read on to explore the five stages of tooth decay.

Understanding Tooth Decay Progression


Your mouth naturally contains bacteria that can benefit oral function but pose a threat to your dental health at the same time. Bacteria build up to create a film over the teeth called plaque. While the outer shell of your teeth provides a durable shield to prevent bacteria from hurting the tooth, this enamel can wear down over time.

If bacteria penetrate a weak spot in the enamel, it will begin to eat away at the dental structure. This initial damage is known as demineralization because the bacteria erode the hard minerals that make up the enamel.

At this stage, you can reverse tooth decay with preventive efforts. Examples include good oral hygiene and using fluoride products to fortify the teeth once more.

You might notice demineralization because it can look like white spots on the surface of the teeth. Dentists can also spot this early form of tooth decay in a routine dental x-ray.


If tooth decay eats a hole into the surface of the tooth, dentist refer to the issue as caries or cavities. This stage of decay points to significant damage to the enamel and will warrant treatment from a dentist to eradicate.

Signs of a cavity include a hole in the tooth, dark dental discoloration, and sensitivity pain. The discomfort of a cavity occurs because damaged enamel can expose nerves within the underlying dentin layer of the tooth. A dentist can treat a cavity by removing the decay and filling the resulting hole with composite resin.

Dentin Decay

Without treatment, decay will progress deeper into the tooth. The softer tissues in the dentin layer of the tooth mean that decay can advance more rapidly, making the problem more dangerous. Make sure you seek cavity treatment with a dental filling promptly to avoid this type of decay progression.

Tooth Pulp Damage

If tooth decay reaches the pulp, the central chamber of the tooth, then bacteria have access to the nerves and blood vessels that keep the tooth healthy. Damage from decay in this vulnerable area can lead to inflammation and swelling that may leave the patient in significant pain. In mild cases, a dentist can reverse the complications by treating the decay. But decay in the pulp often leads to permanent damage.

Infection and Abscess

When bacteria reach the pulp of the tooth, you face a high risk of an infection. An infected tooth can hurt significantly, and the patient might experience a fever or malaise. If the infection progresses, it can make the pulp fill with pus to create an abscess.

The dentist will need to clear out the infection with root canal therapy, which will require a dental crown to shield and protect the vulnerable tooth. In cases of advanced decay that a dentist cannot treat, you might require a tooth extraction. Seek urgent treatment for decay to preserve as much of your natural dental structure as possible.