Is Tooth Decay and Cavities the Same Thing?

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Tooth decay and cavities are a common health problem worldwide. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), among adults in the 20 to 64 age group, more than 90 percent had dental caries decay and nearly 30 percent had untreated tooth decay.

Good oral hygiene, including brushing and flossing your teeth properly and making regular trips to the dentist, are your best defense against tooth decay and cavities. While the terms tooth decay and cavities are often used interchangeably, there are some differences between the two.

What are Cavities?

Over time decay sets in softening your tooth enamel and if left untreated, turns into a cavity. Your teeth have a protective, hard top layer covering called enamel. If this enamel becomes weak from bacteria acids, it forms a cavity (hole or pit) on the surface of your tooth.

Types of Cavities

There are several types of cavities. These include:

  • Root cavities: As you age, your gums begin receding and leave a portion of your tooth’s root exposed. These areas exposed can easily decay since there’s no enamel covering them.

  • Coronal cavities: These cavities are the most common in adults and children. They’re typically found between your teeth or on your chewing surfaces.

  • Recurrent decay: Decay sometimes forms around crowns and fillings since these areas often accumulate plaque — plaque leads to decay.

What is Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay causes cavities, not the other way around and this is a gradual process that goes something like this:

1. Plaque forms. When you eat a lot of starches and sugars without cleaning your teeth, bacteria feeds off them and produces plaque which coats your teeth with a sticky film. When left on your teeth, the plaque hardens and turns to tartar.

2. Plaque begins its attack. Plaque acids get rid of your enamel’s minerals (erosion) and causes holes in your enamel. These are the beginnings of cavities. Once the acids wear away your enamel, they begin on your teeth’s next layer, your dentin. Dentin isn’t as resistant to acid as enamel and is much softer. It’s also communicates with your tooth nerves causing sensitivity.

3. Damage persists. As decay continues developing, the acids reach your pulp (inner tooth material) where your blood vessels and nerves are. Bacteria cause the pulp to become irritated, swollen and painful, extending to the bone on the outside of your tooth root in some cases.

Risks of tooth decay include:

  • Poor dental hygiene (not regularly brushing your teeth or flossing and skipping the dentist appointments).

  • Eating sweets and foods high in starch that feeds your mouth’s bacteria.

  • Lacking fluoride which helps make your teeth more acid resistant and prevents tooth decay.

  • Lacking saliva which washes harmful sugars and food away protecting your teeth from tooth decay.

  • Smoking, breathing in secondhand smoke or using smokeless tobacco (spit).

  • Having diabetes.

Signs and Symptoms of Both Cavities and Tooth Decay

You may experience:

  • Pain

  • Sensitivity

  • Pus or swelling around your tooth

  • Tooth abscess

  • Chewing problems

  • Broken or damaged tooth

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, set up an appointment with your dentist for immediate treatment. Typically, treatment is a filling and antibiotics if your tooth and gums are infected.

Good oral and dental hygiene can help you avoid cavities and tooth decay. Be sure you’re brushing your teeth, gums and tongue twice a day using fluoride toothpaste (morning and night), avoid sipping on sugary drinks and eating sugary snacks all day and visit your dentist every six months for a cleaning and checkup.


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