What Does a Cavity Look Like? (20 Pictures)
Matt Hannan, DDS
Updated: July 6, 2023
When it comes to cavities, many people aren’t quite sure what they look like. Some think tooth decay is a giant hole in your tooth, while others believe it’s anything dark and suspicious looking. In reality, cavities can take many forms and don’t always manifest easily identifiable symptoms.
If you’re worried that you have a cavity, it’s essential to get it checked out by a dentist to determine the cause of any discomfort or signs you may be seeing. In the meantime, however, here are 20 tooth decay pictures to help you decide if a visit to the dentist is necessary.Recommended Reading: Cavities | The Ultimate Guide
What does a cavity look like?
A cavity is a small hole in your tooth that can occur from tooth decay. Cavities are usually dark yellow or brown, although they can also be black. They tend to form in the back teeth on the chewing surface, along the gum line, or between the teeth, although they can form anywhere on a tooth. Tooth decay has many different stages.
Demineralization – occurs when the enamel surface begins to weaken. It appears as a frosty-like or white appearance and often occurs along the gum line where plaque formation occurs.
Incipient decay – is when the cavity has advanced into the enamel layer; however, there is no actual cavitation on the surface yet. Incipient decay and demineralization can be reversed using prescription fluoride treatments.
Dental caries – occurs when the cavity has advanced into the dentin (middle layer). Cavitation has happened at this stage, and remineralization (healing the cavity) is not likely. A dental professional must treat dental caries with a filling, crown, or other restoration.
What do pre-cavities look like?
Pre-cavities are commonly referred to as incipient tooth decay by your dentist, meaning that the cavity is localized in the enamel surface. The enamel surface is weakened by acid from cavity-causing bacteria.
This process is called demineralization and removes enamel minerals (calcium and phosphorus). Pre-cavities can be visualized along the gum line as white discoloration or frosty-like appearance. The enamel surface is weak and prone to cavitation if the cavity process is not stopped.
Recommended Reading: What Is a Cavity? What Causes Rotten Teeth?
What do small cavities look like?
Small cavities start with a frosty-like appearance and then take on a light brown or dark yellow appearance. As the cavity gets larger, it will become a darker color and commonly takes on stains from foods that have been consumed. If cavitation has occurred, the cavity has entered the dentin (middle layer) and becomes soft and sticky.
What do cavities look like on front teeth?
If the cavity forms between the teeth, you will first notice a gray shadow under the enamel surface. If the cavity forms on the smooth surface of the tooth (front or back), it will turn white as the demineralization process begins.
Next, it will take on a yellow or light brown color, and if left untreated, it will advance to the nerve and require a root canal.
Recommended Reading: Can You Reverse a Cavity? (5 Simple Steps)
What do cavities look like in between teeth?
Similar to cavities between front teeth, cavities that form between back teeth appear as a dark shadow. Because the enamel is thicker in the back teeth, tooth decay won’t be visible until it has progressed to a moderate size. As the cavity gets larger, the enamel surface will chip away caused by the cavity hollowing out the tooth.
What do cavities look like on molars?
Cavities on molars tend to look like small, black, or brown spots. They may be difficult to see at first, but they will gradually become more significant and noticeable as the tooth decays. Cavities commonly form on the chewing surface within the deep grooves and pits of molar teeth.
Sealants are plastic-like coatings that can be placed on the grooves during adolescence to prevent cavity formation. If you have any suspicions that you may have a cavity, please visit your dentist for a proper diagnosis.
What do cavities look like on baby teeth?
A cavity on a baby tooth may look different than a cavity on an adult tooth. This is because babies typically have smaller cavities, and children may not have as many symptoms as adult teeth. Tooth decay in a baby tooth will begin as a tiny hole. Early Childhood Caries (ECC) is diagnosed when children under six have one or more decayed, missing, or filled tooth surfaces. Children with this condition have a very high risk of further tooth decay and a weakened structure.
What does severe tooth decay look like?
Severe tooth decay occurs when multiple permanent teeth have cavities that progress to a non-restorable state. Severe tooth decay may occur slowly over time, rapidly on chewing surfaces, or between teeth.
Deep cavities on back teeth may cause pain or infection. When severe tooth decay is present, multiple teeth may need to be extracted.
What do cavities look like on x-rays?
Cavities appear as dark shadows on x-rays. A cavity or tooth decay destroys the enamel and dentin layers allowing the x-ray beam to pass through more quickly than healthy tooth structure. This cavity process causes a dark spot to appear most often between the teeth and below the contact.
Can you reverse a cavity?
Cavities that are located in the enamel can be reversed. This process is called remineralization and can only be accomplished when the cavity is superficial.
If the cavity progresses to the dentin layer, the cavity cannot be repaired because there’s an irreversible hole in the tooth. There are five simple steps to heal a cavity (continue reading to learn more about them).
Cavity signs & symptoms
The size and severity of the cavity correlate to how deep it penetrates the tooth. The tooth is made of three layers enamel, dentin, and pulp, and the deeper the hole, the more painful it becomes. Cavities progress at varying stages depending on the location and other risk factors. Occasionally cavities are present, and the patient is unaware due to the absence of pain.Recommended Reading:
Why Does a Cavity Hurt? (5 BEST Toothache Home Remedies)
Other signs & symptoms of cavities include:
- Pain when you bite down
- Pain when you eat hot, cold, or sweet foods
- Dark spots on your tooth
- Sensitive teeth
- Spontaneous pain
- Pain that wakes you up during the night
Can brushing stop a cavity?
Unfortunately, brushing alone will not stop a cavity; however regular brushing may aid in the healing process (demineralization) by sweeping away cavity-causing bacteria and applying fluoridated toothpaste in cavity-stricken areas. Fluoride treatments can halt cavity development and formation to repair weekend enamel tooth structure.
The American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance evaluates and screens for quality oral health products, including mouthwash, toothpaste, and floss.
Recommended Reading: 10 Simple Steps to Prevent Cavities (Dentist’s Perspective)
Does flossing decrease cavities?
Unfortunately, similar to brushing, flossing alone will not stop a cavity however regular flossing can remove plaque and other cavity-causing bacteria between the teeth that are often difficult for toothbrush bristles to reach. Food particles will also become lodged between the gums and tooth leading to bleeding gums and possibly gum disease. Brushing and flossing will also help reduce bad breath and improve oral health.
How can I fix cavities naturally?
Most people prefer to fix cavities naturally rather than at the dentist. You need to understand the cavity process before you can attempt to fix/reverse a cavity. Cavities weaken the enamel surface by removing valuable minerals (calcium and phosphorus).
If these minerals are not replaced, the cavity process will continue. The best way to replace or repair these lost minerals is by using fluoride toothpaste.
These five steps provide the most significant opportunity to reverse a cavity and are listed from most important to least important. Cavities only localized in the first tooth layer (enamel) can be healed/remineralized. Tooth decay that advances into the second tooth layer (dentin) or further requires dental treatment because the cavitation is irreversible.
Step 1: Nightly fluoride trays (Dentist-required)
Nightly fluoride trays are fabricated at the dentist and require an upper and lower impression of your teeth. Your dentist will also prescribe 1.1% sodium fluoride anti-cavity gel to apply inside the trays.
When you wear them each night, fluoride will directly contact your teeth to remineralize cavities.
Step 2: Prescription fluoride toothpaste (Dentist-required)
Your dentist can also prescribe 1.1% sodium fluoride anti-cavity toothpaste that you should use nightly. Use a pea-sized amount, and after thoroughly brushing, spit it out and don’t rinse. Rinsing your mouth will inadvertently remove the fluoride minerals and prevent tooth remineralization.
Step 3: Topical fluoride varnish (Dentist-required)
5% fluoride varnish is only available at your dentist and can be directly applied to localized areas of decay. The sticky varnish is gently painted on your teeth and requires no eating or drinking for at least 30 minutes. The direct application provides a protective barrier for fluoride to take effect.
Step 4: Over-the-counter toothpaste
The most effective remineralizing toothpaste contains sodium fluoride, stannous fluoride, or calcium phosphate (hydroxyapatite). These ingredients bond to weakened enamel, repairing missing tooth structures and preventing future decay. Look for one with the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance.Recommended Reading: What is the ADA Seal of Acceptance?
Step 5: Oral health improvement
Oral health improvement consists of regular dental visits, frequent brushing, and nightly flossing. Antibacterial mouthwash also helps remove food particles while killing cavity-causing bacteria. However, improving oral health may require mastering new dental habits.
What happens if you ignore a cavity?
Cavities are caused by plaque, which is a sticky film of bacteria that forms on your teeth. Plaque produces acids that eat away at your tooth enamel, causing cavities. If you have a cavity, you may not experience any symptoms at first.
However, as the cavity gets larger, it can cause pain, sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures, and even tooth loss. If you think you may have a cavity, it’s important to see your dentist immediately so they can treat it before it worsens.
How do I know if I need a filling?
If you have a cavity, your dentist will likely recommend a filling to restore the tooth’s function and appearance. A filling is a type of dental restoration that repairs teeth that have lost their original mineral structure and luster. The most common type of filling material is composite resin, which is made of plastic and glass particles.Recommended Reading: 12 Cavity Risk Factors (Best Treatment)
My Experience & Expertise
Cavities come in all shapes and sizes, but they always have one thing in common: they’re a sign that something is wrong with your oral health. If you’re noticing any of the symptoms we’ve discussed in this blog post, it’s time to see a dentist. By catching tooth decay early on, you can avoid bigger problems down the road and keep your smile looking great for years to come.
It’s important to remember that home remedies should not replace professional dental care, as untreated cavities can lead to pain, infection, and tooth loss. Also, it would be best to use home remedies as temporary pain relief until your dentist can see you. If you notice signs of infection, including fever, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or your eye is beginning to shut, seek immediate emergency care.
Knowledge is power when cultivating healthy dental habits. The more informed you are, the better positioned you’ll be to prevent avoidable and potentially costly dental procedures for you and your family. Watch for future blog posts, where we’ll continue sharing important information, product reviews and practical advice!
- InformedHealth.org. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (2006). Tooth decay: Overview. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279514/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Nordstrom, A. High-fluoride Toothpaste (5000 ppm) in Caries Prevention. University of Gothenburg, 2011.
- American Dental Association (ADA)
- Heng C. Tooth Decay Is the Most Prevalent Disease. Fed Pract. 2016.