Share on Pinterest
MilanEXPO/Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), within the last decade, roughly 17 percent of children ages 5 to 19 had untreated cavities.

Cavities, also called dental caries, are the result of untreated tooth decay. Over time, this tooth decay can cause holes that go deep into your teeth, sometimes all the way to the root.

Luckily, early cavities can be prevented — and even heal on their own — with the right approach to oral hygiene.

In this article, we’ll discuss how cavities develop, how to prevent a cavity, and how to reverse the early stages of tooth decay.

Tooth decay and the subsequent development of cavities happens when your teeth are exposed to acids produced by oral bacteria.

Over time, frequent exposure to these acidic byproducts causes a breakdown in the minerals of your teeth.

There are five stages of tooth decay that contribute to the development of a cavity:

  1. Demineralization. The first stage of tooth decay occurs when the enamel is exposed to acids from bacteria interacting with sugars and starches.
  2. Enamel decay. The second stage of decay happens when the enamel continues to break down. At this stage, holes (cavities) can form in your teeth.
  3. Dentin decay. The third stage of tooth decay occurs once the decay reaches the dentin, which is the soft tissue underneath the enamel. At this stage of decay, the cavity will most likely be painful.
  4. Pulp decay. The final, major stage of decay is when the cavity has reached the pulp, which houses the nerves and blood vessels in your tooth. Once the pulp has been reached, the inflammation is more extreme.
  5. Abscesses. These can occur when the bacteria inside the cavity spread beneath the pulp and form a pocket of pus. In some cases, a tooth abscess can go unnoticed — but most times, abscesses are extremely painful.

There’s no specific timeline for how long it takes for a cavity to develop. Tooth decay is affected by a variety of factors.

However, poor oral hygiene has the biggest effect on how quickly a cavity will develop.

A cavity can usually be reversed if it’s caught at the onset or early stages of the demineralization process, the first step of tooth decay.

During this stage, good oral hygiene is imperative to restoring the minerals in your teeth and halting decay. This specifically includes regular brushing and flossing as well as frequent exposure to fluoride, a mineral that helps strengthen the enamel of your teeth.

Unfortunately, cavities can’t always be prevented, even with improved oral hygiene. In these cases, the treatment for the cavity depends on how deep the tooth decay has gone.

Treatment options for a cavity may include:

  • Fillings. A resin or composite filling is used for smaller cavities.
  • Inlays or onlays. An inlay or onlay is used for cavities that are too large for a normal filling.
  • Crowns. A metal or porcelain crown may be necessary when a cavity affects a larger portion of your tooth.
  • Root canals. A root canal inserts filling material into the inner part of your tooth, known as the pulp. Root canals are used when the pulp is damaged or infected.
  • Extractions. A tooth extraction is reserved for when the tooth decay can no longer be treated

Even though it’s possible to reverse the beginnings of tooth decay, maintaining good oral hygiene is still the best way to prevent a cavity from forming.

Here are some of the most important steps you can take to practice proper oral hygiene:

  • Brush your teeth twice at least twice per day with a fluoride toothpaste. This will help prevent the buildup of plaque and repair any early damage done to the enamel.
  • Floss your teeth once a day to prevent the buildup of plaque between the teeth. Flossing is best done at night before bed to prevent bacteria from feeding overnight.
  • Increase your exposure to fluoride by doing activities such as drinking fluoridated water and using fluoride-containing products. In some cases, you can even ask your dentist for fluoride treatments or prescription fluoride for use at home.
  • Limit your exposure to overly sugary or starchy foods. These types of foods contribute the most to tooth decay. When you do enjoy these sugary foods, make sure to give your teeth a good brush after.
  • Visit the dentist at least once every 6 months for a cleaning, or more if your dentist recommends more frequent cleanings.

If you do have a cavity that needs to be filled, don’t delay treatment. Getting a cavity filled right away — even if it’s tiny — can help prevent further tooth decay down the line.

A white spot on a tooth is usually the first sign of a developing cavity. Over time, this white spot can turn brown or black. Eventually, this discoloration on the enamel will give way to a hole in the tooth.

Other symptoms of a cavity that warrant a visit to the dentist may include:

  • sensitivity to hot or cold foods
  • sensitivity when eating sweets
  • pain when chewing or biting down
  • toothache or sharp pains, especially when eating

It’s always important to schedule yearly checkups and cleanings to catch any tooth decay that may be developing. Catching a cavity early is the best way to avoid tooth decay spreading into the dentin or pulp of your teeth.

Cavities are considered one of the most common forms of tooth decay, and they’re perhaps one of the easiest forms to treat.

Fortunately, the beginning stages of a cavity can be reversed by taking steps toward good oral hygiene.

During early demineralization, exposure to fluoride, daily brushing and flossing, and regular cleanings can all help prevent — or even reverse — tooth decay.