Tooth decay is a common cause of tooth pain. If left untreated, it can result in cavities, infection, and even tooth loss. Maintaining good oral hygiene and regular dental visits play a vital role in preventing tooth decay. The initial signs of tooth decay aren’t always obvious. Understanding the stages of tooth decay can help prevent serious problems from developing later on.
Plaque and Tartar
Dental plaque is a sticky, often colorless, deposit that constantly forms on the surface of teeth. It is made up of bacteria in the mouth, combined with food particles and saliva. Many oral health problems, especially tooth decay, are caused by plaque, because certain bacteria found in the plaque convert the sugars present in food into acids, which if left to build up, can begin to damage teeth and gums.
If plaque is left to build up on the tooth, it can react with minerals in the saliva and can harden (mineralize) and turn into tartar – a more permanent coating. The presence of tartar creates a shield for the bacteria and makes plaque more difficult to remove.
The 5 main stages of tooth decay:
Stage 1 – Mineral Loss
Enamel is the outer layer of the tooth. It is the hardest tissue in the body and is made up primarily of minerals. When exposed to the acids produced by the plaque, the enamel on the tooth’s surface begins to lose some of the minerals in a process called demineralization. Visual signs include a chalky white area or while spot on the surface of the tooth.
Stage 2 – Enamel Decay
If the process of decay continues, the enamel will continue to deteriorate and will start to break down underneath the surface of the tooth. This stage prevents the natural remineralization process from taking place, and the enamel becomes weakened allowing small lesions or holes, known as cavities, to develop. Cavities need to be filled by a dentist in order to prevent decay from worsening.
Stage 3 – Dentin Decay
Dentin is that layer of tissue underneath the enamel layer that surrounds the pulp at the center of the tooth. Dentin is softer than enamel making it more vulnerable to damage from acid. It contains thousands of microscopic tubes that directly communicate with the nerves at the center of the tooth, and when the tubes become exposed it can cause pain and sensitivity, that we often associate with toothache caused by a cavity.
Stage 4 –Damage to Pulp
The pulp at the center of the tooth is made up of living tissues and cells known as odontoblasts which work to form the dentin. It also contains the nerves and blood vessels that help to keep teeth healthy and provide sensation to the tooth. If the pulp gets infected by bacteria, it becomes swollen and irritated but because there is no space for the swelling to expand within the tooth, pressure is placed on the nerves, causing pain. A root canal procedure is often required to repair and save a tooth that is badly decayed or infected.
Stage 5 – Abscess Formation
If tooth decay advances into the pulp, bacteria can cause an infection and the development of pus at the bottom of the tooth. This formation of pus is known as an abscess and is the final stage of tooth decay. It can lead to significant pain and requires prompt treatment to prevent the infection from spreading to other areas of the body. A tooth extraction and/or oral surgery may be required for significant tooth decay.
Comprehensive Dental Care in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
If you are looking for comprehensive dental care for you and your family, Hagerman Dental Care can help. We offer state-of-the-art preventive, restorative and cosmetic dentistry in one convenient location. For more information about the services we offer or to make an appointment, call us today at (651) 646-2392 or use our online form to request an appointment at your convenience.