What Are The Five Stages of Tooth Decay?

5 stages of tooth decay

Tooth decay doesn’t just happen because you ate a piece of candy or drank soda once. It happens because bacteria in your mouth produce acids that wear away at your teeth until they form holes and cavities.

If you’re looking for ways to prevent tooth decay or treat it before it gets too bad, understanding the stages of tooth decay can help you take charge of your oral health—especially the early stages!

What are the stages of tooth decay

Tooth decay is a problem that can result in cavities (dental caries), dental abscesses, and even tooth loss. It happens when certain species of bacteria that live in dental plaque break down the sugars in your diet into acids. Plaque is a sticky, colorless film that forms on your teeth. If plaque is not removed from your teeth regularly, acids will begin to eat away at the enamel.

There are several stages of tooth decay, and treatment of tooth decay varies by stage. Here are some common symptoms of tooth decay.

  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Tooth pain
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Tooth pain
  • Staining
  • Holes or pits in your teeth
  • Bad breath or dry mouth
  • Unpleasant taste in your mouth
Stages of tooth decay

How can I prevent tooth decay?

Father daughter brushing teeth

Steps you can take to prevent plaque build-up and decay include:

  • Ask your dentist if a topical fluoride treatment will benefit you during your regular dental visit.
  • Sugar is a significant cause of cavities. It’s no surprise that sugary foods like candies, pies, cake, cookies, chocolate bars, and ice cream are the biggest culprits of tooth decay. But even fruit juices or soft drinks can be problematic because they contain natural sugars that are difficult for your body to break down. If you want to indulge, do it at meal times. That way, you can brush your teeth right after and avoid sugary snacks between meals as much as possible.
  • Make sure to brush your teeth and floss regularly to keep your mouth clean and healthy!
  • Ensure you’re keeping up with your regular dental checkups and that your teeth are getting the attention they deserve.
  • Seek dental care if you experience ongoing discomfort. 

Stage 1: Initial demineralization

The first stage of tooth decay is initial demineralization. This happens when your tooth’s protective outer layer, called enamel, is worn away by acidic foods and beverages or bacteria. Enamel is made up of microscopic crystals, which are made from minerals like calcium and phosphate. Your body uses these minerals to build your bones, but they also help protect the inner parts of your teeth from dental decay. If you have weak enamel or if your teeth have been exposed to too much acid, you’re more likely to experience this early stage of tooth decay. When a white spot appears on a tooth, it can mean that that’s an indication of tooth decay.

Suppose you want to stop the process of tooth-enamel demineralization. In that case, you should consider dental sealants and or fluoride in your oral hygiene regimen (fluoride treatment or fluoride toothpaste). Saliva produced from chewing sugar-free gum is also beneficial to protecting your tooth enamel.

Stage 2: Enamel decay

Enamel is the protective outer layer of your tooth, and it’s made up of a combination of minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, and fluoride. When you have enamel decay, your teeth can become very sensitive to temperature changes, and you may experience pain when eating or drinking hot or cold foods. Teeth that are affected by enamel decay are more likely to develop cavities.

To prevent enamel decay, using fluoride toothpaste, brushing, flossing, and rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash every day can help prevent enamel loss from occurring. Visiting your dentist every six months for regular checkups and teeth cleaning is an excellent way to be proactive in your dental health.

Dental visit

 Stage 3: Dentin decay

The third stage of the tooth decay process is dentin decay. Dentine is the layer of your teeth that lies below the enamel and between the pulp. Because of its softness, dentin is more susceptible to damage from acid than enamel. This means that dental decay can progress more quickly once it reaches the dentin.

When tooth decay affects the dentin, which contains tubules (small hollow tubes or canals) that lead to the tooth’s nerves, you can experience sensitivity. This may be especially pronounced when eating hot or cold foods or drinks.

If you detect early signs of tooth decay, a filling can be used to address the problem. However, if damage has spread through the entire tooth structure and pulp, your dentist will likely remove the decayed area of your tooth and cover the remaining tooth structure with a crown.

Stage 4: Pulp damage

Your tooth’s pulp is the soft inner part that contains nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue. The nerves help keep your tooth healthy and alert you to changes in temperature or pressure inside your mouth.

When the pulp in your tooth becomes damaged and irritated, it may start to swell, and because the surrounding area cannot expand to ease the swelling, it can cause pain and sensitivity to heat and cold.

When tooth decay reaches the pulp, a root canal treatment will likely be needed. A patient can be treated by their general dentist, or in severe cases; they may be referred to an endodontist, a specialist in this type of procedure.

Stage 5: Infection, Dental Abscess, and Gum Disease

If tooth decay continues progressing and reaches the pulp, an infection can develop that affects the nerves, blood vessels, and jawbone. The infection can spread to other teeth or form a pocket of pus called an abscess.

Tooth abscesses are painful, and they can cause swelling in your gums, face, or jaw. You may also have a fever and swollen lymph nodes in your neck. If you have a tooth abscess, it is important to receive prompt treatment to avoid losing the tooth. If left untreated, the infection can spread to your jawbone, and sometimes the infected tooth may need to be extracted.

When to see a dentist

Mouth Pain

Did you know tooth decay can start in the early stages without symptoms? That’s why it’s so important to visit your dentist regularly. Your dentist can identify and address early signs of tooth decay before they worsen, which will help keep your teeth healthy for a long time! If you experience tooth sensitivity, tooth pain, or swelling in or around your mouth, make an appointment with your dentist. These are all signs of the later stages of tooth decay or another dental condition that needs attention.

Common Questions About Invisalign

Dental caries, or cavities, can be caused by a variety of factors. The most common include:

  • Diet of sweets
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Tooth placement
  • Worn dental replacements (Fillings, crowns, etc.)

Yes, they are. Tooth decay is the most common disease in children ages 2-5 years old. To help prevent tooth decay, knowing how to prevent it and what to do if you think your child has it is important.

How do I know if my child has tooth decay?

Tooth decay can cause pain and swelling of the gums, making eating uncomfortable. You may notice that your child is drooling more than usual or being more fussy while eating than usual. If this happens, take them to a dentist as soon as possible.

What should I do if my child has tooth decay?

If your child has tooth decay, they need to see a dentist right away! The sooner you get them in to see a dentist, the easier it will be for them to treat the problem and stop it from getting worse. They’ll need to have an X-ray taken so they can see what’s going on inside their mouth, and then they’ll be able to tell you exactly how things are before making any decisions about treatment options.

It depends on the tooth and how badly it’s been damaged. In most cases, tooth decay can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. The longer you wait to get treatment, the worse the damage will be and the more expensive it will be to fix.

Dentists fix decaying teeth by removing the decayed portion of the tooth and then placing a filling in the area. If extensive decay or weakened teeth are an issue, you may need a crown to restore the tooth.


Your oral health is the foundation of your overall health. With a good daily dental hygiene routine, regular visits to your dentist, and the right information about what you can do to keep your teeth for life, you can ensure that you’ll have healthy teeth and gums for years. But oral hygiene can often be overlooked, and it’s important for you to know exactly how important it is. As your local family dentist near the Allen and Fairview area, we are here to help you with any questions or concerns that you might have about keeping your smile healthy.

If you need any dental treatment and would like to reduce yoru risk of tooth decay, our team is here to answer all of your treatment option questions to find the right dental solution for healthy teeth. To schedule your appointment, contact Sloan Creek Dental, and our friendly staff will be happy to assist you. You can reach us at our Fairview, TX dental office to schedule an in-person consultation with us today – 972-468-1440

Our dental office is located in Fairview, Texas, and our patients visit us from across the surrounding areas, including Allen, Plano, McKinney, and Lucas.