Megan Arjmandi DDS

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What a dental cavity looks like

A cavity is a hole that develops in a tooth when decay from plaque and bacteria eats away at the enamel and underlying dentin. Cavities can vary in appearance depending on their size, depth, and where they are located, but some common characteristics can help identify them.

In the earliest stage, a cavity may appear as a small white or brown spot on the tooth surface. You need to look closely, as early cavities are difficult to see with the naked eye. There is surface demineralization of the enamel at this point, but no actual hole yet. The area may feel rough when you run your tongue over it.

As the decay worsens, a slight depression begins forming in the enamel, which is the beginning of an actual hole or cavity. The area often looks darker and stained, turning into a light to dark brown color. This is because food debris, bacteria, and waste products start getting trapped in the tiny opening. The decayed spot is now porous and retains these particles.

Once the cavity extends through the hard enamel layer, it penetrates down into the softer dentin layer underneath. This leads to rapid growth of the cavity, which takes on a more noticeable hole-like appearance. The cavity looks like a dark spot or shadow on the white tooth surface once it reaches the yellowish dentin. Sensitive to hot, cold, or sweet foods usually occurs at this moderate stage.

Large advanced cavities create a deep, extensive hole in the tooth, often with visibly softened decay inside it. The cavity looks like a dark brown crater that stands out from the surrounding normal enamel. Dentin near the pulp often looks mushy and discolored too. Major cavities may cause tooth fracture or complete destruction if the decay is left untreated.

Keep in mind cavities on less visible back teeth are harder to identify visually. But indicators like sensitivity, pain when chewing, or an unusually small hole can signal a cavity needing care. Catching and treating cavities early leads to simpler, less invasive fillings. Don’t ignore small suspicious spots on teeth that may be budding cavities. Let your dentist examine any areas of concern. And maintain your dental checkups every 6 months to detect decay before it gets advanced. With vigilant brushing and dental care, cavities can be prevented and treated early.