The Stages of Tooth Decay

Stages of Tooth Decay - Dentist Idaho Falls

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Tooth decay progresses along a predictable timeline, beginning with the formation of plaque and ultimately ending with abscess and the death of the tooth root. Here we’ll be discussing the stages of tooth decay from beginning to end (and how your Idaho Falls dentist can help at any stage) beginning with:

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The Formation of Plaque

You likely know that plaque is that fuzzy substance that accumulates on your teeth after long periods of time without brushing. However, you might not know exactly what plaque is, or how it forms.

Plaque is actually the result of chemical reactions that take place through the combination of carbohydrates and the bacteria that naturally lives in your mouth. Here’s how it works:

  • The carbohydrates in the food that you consume combine with the bacteria in your mouth.
  • This results in the creation of an acid.
  • This acid collects various food particles left over in your mouth after you eat, making it hard and sticky – that’s the substance we generally call “plaque”.

It should make sense that foods high in carbohydrates (sugary, starchy food, and even fruit) are going to result in more plaque, which is why these foods are associated with cavities and tooth decay.

Even if you have developed a good dental routine, making sure you schedule regular dental cleanings from your Idaho Falls dentist is important.


The acid in plaque begins to wear down dental enamel – the outer, protective layer of the teeth. This process is called “demineralization”.

This process is often slow, and it’s possible that the body can have time to replenish the tooth enamel before reaching the next stage. Dental cleanings from your Idaho Falls dentist, as well as following his or her advice regarding dental hygiene and diet, is a good way of solving this issue.

First Stage Tooth Decay

As the acid further wears down the tooth enamel, dark spots will begin to appear on the teeth. Many mistake these spots for the cavities themselves, although this is not accurate. These are indicators that the acid is reaching the dentin – the layer beneath the enamel.

At this stage, the decay process is still reversible with a dental exam and cleaning.

Cavity Formation

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Once the acid has reached beyond the dentin, a hole forms in the tooth. Unfortunately, once a cavity has officially formed, it is impossible to reverse the tooth decay process through brushing and cleaning. Cavities require dental fillings in order to stop tooth decay from further progressing.


Cavities can eventually progress to the point that they infect the tooth pulp, the tissue underneath the dentin that contains the tooth nerve. This stage is extremely painful. Generally speaking, root canal therapy is the only option.


The final stage of tooth decay is the formation of an abscess, an inflamed infection pocket that forms around the tooth nerve. The abscess can spread to the surrounding gum line and even into the bloodstream (increasing the risk for systemic disease, stroke, heart disease, and other problems).

At this stage, your Idaho Falls dentist can help by draining the abscess and performing a root canal, which will ultimately solve the issue and alleviate your pain.

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