Tooth decay is, simply put, the destruction of the hard enamel that protects the outside of your teeth. This decay can lead to cavity and other periodontal disease conditions related to tooth loss. There are a variety of causes, symptoms, and stages of tooth decay. Knowing what to look out for can help you protect your teeth.

What causes tooth decay?

Tooth decay causes are very simple to identify. Our mouths are filled with bacteria. This bacteria forms a sticky film on the teeth. As this bacteria-laden film (also called plaque) lingers on the tooth’s surface, it produces acid. This acid begins to eat away at the tooth enamel over time.

Acid-loving bacteria thrives in certain conditions.

A mouth with poor oral hygiene

If you don’t brush and floss regularly, bacteria continues to grow and thrive. As it gets more entrenched in the mouth, the plaque that the bacteria forms builds up and becomes more difficult to remove as time passes.

A diet high in sugar and fat

Bacteria loves to eat sugar and fat, both of which increase the production of acid. This increased production leads to more tooth decay, which makes sugar and fat one of the leading tooth decay causes.

Do I have tooth decay?

Knowing if you have tooth decay is an important part of treatment. There are many symptoms and different stages of tooth decay.

Tooth decay symptoms

In the early stages, tooth decay symptoms may not be obvious. You may experience bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth, both of which you can temporarily relieve with mouthwashes or mints.

Initially, your teeth may begin to become sensitive. As the tooth decay wears down the tooth enamel, it exposes more of the nerves in the soft inside of the tooth. Over time, this sensitivity may increase until eating or drinking both hot and cold foods becomes uncomfortable.

Some people experience pain when they bite down, a sharp pain that disappears when they remove the pressure. Over time, this pain may increase to a steady throb that is present even when there is no pressure.

Visual signs of tooth decay include:

  • Visible holes or small pits in the surface of teeth
  • Small brown dots on the teeth
  • Brown, black, or even white stains that occur on any part of the tooth (white indicates damage to the enamel)

Tooth decay stages

Left untreated, tooth decay progresses from minor to very serious in a hurry. There are six tooth decay stages.

Stage 1: White spots

White spots on teeth indicate a build up of plaque and loss of calcium. The acids produced by bacteria begin to attack the teeth in a process called demineralization.

This plaque can usually be removed with a metal tool at the dentist’s office, but proper brushing can also help to remove plaque on a daily basis (and prevent build-up).

Stage 2: Enamel decay

At this stage, the deterioration of the enamel continues, weakening the tooth itself.

There is a possibility that the tooth might break or crack at this stage, a problem that requires an immediate visit to the dentist.

Stage 3: Dentin decay

The dentin is the tooth material that exists between the enamel and the soft interior of the teeth (also called the pulp).

Once you reach this stage, you might begin to experience sharp pain when you bite down. At this stage, a filling is required to repair the damage caused by tooth decay (and also to prevent further spread of decay).

Stage 4: Pulp involvement

As tooth decay reaches the dental pulp, pain becomes more constant and intense.

The decay infects the soft cells and delicate nerves in the dental pulp, and a sharp increase in pain is the result (known as a toothache). Pus begins to form inside the tooth, signaling infection. Root canal is the most-utilized treatment option at this stage.

Stage 5: Abscess

Tooth decay has as its next-to-last-stage one of the most painful and dangerous conditions: abscessed tooth.

This abscess is an infection that can begin to involve the tooth,