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Tooth decay begins with plaque, a thin film of bacteria that continuously builds up on the teeth. The bacteria produce acids in your mouth and, if allowed to accumulate, can gradually damage tooth enamel and lead to cavities. Decay worsens over time, and more advanced tooth decay stages will require more extensive treatments.

First Signs of Tooth Decay

When tooth decay first develops, it can look like a brown or white spot on the tooth. This discoloration occurs when the enamel softens. Early tooth decay may have no symptoms, but it can be detected by a dentist at a dental checkup.

At this early stage, the tooth decay can be stopped or even reversed, notes the JADA article. Dentists may recommend treatments to make the tooth enamel stronger, such as topical fluoride, or treatments to protect the teeth, such as sealants.

Tooth Decay Stages

If early-stage tooth decay isn’t treated, the softened enamel starts to break down, resulting in a cavity. At this point, it may not be possible to reverse the damage done to the tooth, but further decay can be prevented with treatment from your dentist.

If you think you have a cavity, see your dentist right away. Many treatments are available, depending on the size and location of the cavity. Your dentist may recommend a filling, which involves removing the decayed portion of the tooth and restoring the area with a filling material. Larger cavities, however, may need to be restored with crowns, which are tooth-colored caps that are used to completely cover the teeth.

If left untreated, the cavity can spread deeper into the tooth. It may reach the dentin, which is the sensitive tooth layer beneath the enamel. This dentin decay can spread even further and reach the pulp, which contains the tooth’s nerves and blood vessels.

As the decay advances, people may notice different symptoms. The affected teeth can be sensitive, and you may notice pain when you consume sweet, hot or cold foods and drinks. Toothaches or pain when you bite down can also be warning signs of decay. When decay worsens, it may even be visible as holes or pits in the teeth.

Complications of Untreated Decay

Tooth decay can cause serious complications when it’s not treated. Severe decay can result in an infection, and a pocket of pus (known as an abscess) may develop at the tip of the tooth root Symptoms of tooth abscesses can include pain, swelling and fever. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the surrounding areas, including the jawbone.

Tooth loss is another possible complication of untreated decay. The Mayo Clinic notes that when decayed teeth cannot be saved, dentists may need to extract the tooth entirely.

Preventing Tooth Decay

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk of tooth decay. First, a good oral hygiene routine is essential. Brush your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and remember to floss once a day. Your dentist may recommend using a mouthwash, too.

The University of Rochester Medical Center notes that eating a tooth-healthy diet can also be helpful. Sugary and starchy foods, such as cake, cookies and chips, can cling to the teeth and contribute to plaque buildup. Try avoiding these foods, or brush your teeth after eating them. Other types of foods, such as fruits, vegetables and cheese, can increase the flow of saliva, which helps wash away food particles and prevent decay. Ask your dentist for more information about tooth-healthy food choices.

It’s important to keep up with your regular dental checkups. At these visits, your dentist can identify early-stage tooth decay and treat it before it gets worse. If you suspect you might have a cavity now, don’t wait to see your dentist. Getting treatment as soon as possible will put you on a path to a healthy mouth.