The 3 Stages Of Tooth Decay And How They Are Treated

As far as most people are concerned, tooth decay means one simple thing--cavities. Yet the process of decay is actually much more complex than this. If you would like to improve your dental health by learning more about tooth decay, read on. This article will introduce the three main stages--and how to treat them.

Tooth Demineralization

Tooth demineralization is the earliest stage of dental decay. It can often be recognized by the gradual appearance of white spots on the surface of your tooth's enamel. Also, you may notice that your teeth have become more sensitive--or even painful.

Demineralization is most commonly caused by exposure to acids--either dietary acids, such as those found in sodas and citrus fruits, or acids produced by bacterial plaque in the mouth. Poor dental hygiene is generally one of the prime culprits behind tooth demineralization. 

Because at this stage there are still no holes in the enamel, tooth demineralization can usually be treated at home. Your dentist will likely prescribe a powerful fluoride toothpaste and/or mouth rinse. By adhering to a strict regimen of hygiene using these products, it is possible to remineralize the surface of the tooth, thus preventing more serious conditions from arising.


A cavity occurs when a hole forms on the enamel surface of your tooth. As a result, the layer of soft dentin below it becomes exposed--often quite painfully. At this stage your tooth is no longer capable of repairing itself, no matter what your hygiene practices are. In other words, dental restoration is necessary to eliminate a cavity.

The first step in this process is for the dentist to remove the decayed portion of the tooth using a dental drill. Then the resulting hole must be filled with a restorative material, to prevent further infections or decay. There are three main ways to fill a cavity: dental fillings, inlays and onlays, and dental crowns.

Infected Pulp

If a cavity is allowed to persist too long without being treated, the decay will progress all the way through the dentin to the pulp at the center of your tooth. This often results in an infection of either the pulp tissue, the surrounding nerves, or the blood vessels. At this point, root canals are the only treatment option.

During a root canal, your dentist empties all tissues from both the pulp chamber of your tooth, and the tooth's root canals. These areas are then filled back in with a special sealing material. Finally, the appearance of the tooth is restored either through the implementation of dental filling or, in more serious cases, a dental crown.