How to Spot A Stage 1 Early Cavity (And What to Do About It)

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How do you spot a stage 1 early cavity, and if you are able to identify a cavity before it has fully developed, is there anything you can do to stop it from getting worse?

If you have ever had a cavity, you are probably all too familiar with the tell-tale symptoms, namely tooth sensitivity, dark spots forming on the surface of the teeth, and seemingly sudden tooth pain, particularly when biting down. If left untreated, severe tooth decay can lead to serious infection affecting both the surrounding tissues in your mouth and eventually the bone surrounding the tooth root. In the most extreme cases, the infection that develops can even be life-threatening. 

Fortunately, you do not have to go through all of that pain. If you become adept at spotting tooth decay when it first starts developing, not only will you become able to prevent it getting any worse, you may also be able to completely reverse it.

This article is all about early stage cavities – what causes them, how they progress, how to spot them before they develop into the painful, full-blown painful infections most of us associate with the word ‘cavities,’ and how to reverse them.

If this sounds like something you would like to learn more about, then keep on reading.

The five stages of tooth decay

Tooth decay does not happen from one day to the next. Instead, tooth decay progresses through five stages, each of which comes with its own distinct symptoms and treatment options.

Practicing good daily dental hygiene is the best way to prevent tooth decay from developing in the first place, but even if you brush and floss diligently, plaque bacteria may still erode your enamel and lead to cavities now and then. Despite our best intentions and efforts it is not always possible to prevent tooth decay from developing, but if you are able to spot tooth decay in its first stage of development, you are most likely able to halt and even undo the damage.

To help you identify early stage tooth decay, here are the five distinct stages of tooth decay as it develops.


Tooth decay begins with demineralization of the tooth’s surface. 

This is how it happens. As you go about your daily life, plaque inevitably builds up between and around your teeth. You cannot prevent this from happening, but staying on top of your oral hygiene every day still works as a kind of preventative measure. If you brush and floss regularly, it leaves little room for plaque to coat your teeth for long periods of time, which is exactly how demineralisation occurs.

The reason why plaque buildup leads to demineralisation is that it contains bacteria, and this bacteria produces acids. Even though the enamel of your teeth is the toughest material in your body – tougher even than your bones – the acids in your mouth are still able to wear it down and weaken it over time. 

There is no physical pain or discomfort associate with the first stages of enamel erosion, but there is a visual clue: Little white spots forming on the surface of your tooth. In other words, if you see tiny white spots on your teeth, know that it is a warning sign of early stage tooth decay.

Enamel decay

The second stage of tooth decay is that the enamel begins to decay. Once the tooth decay has escalated to this stage, it is already much harder to reverse – which is why it is so important to take action to revise the damage as soon as you see those tiny white spots mentioned earlier.

During the enamel decay sage, the little white spots turn brown and true cavities begin to form in your teeth’s enamel. You will inevitably experience tooth sensitivity. The only treatment option at this stage is to get fillings to prevent further damage.

Dentin Decay

After the enamel decay stage follows the decay of the soft dentin layer underneath the enamel.

Once dental decay reaches the dentin, the tooth begins to hurt, often quite terribly. It is also at this stage that the tooth decay begins to really speed up, as it can spread much faster through the dentin than through the hard-wearing enamel.

In some cases, if the dentin decay is identified early on, it can still be treated with a dental filling. In many other cases, however, substantial damage may have already occurred and the dentist may have no other option than to remove part of the tooth and replace it with a crown.

Damaged pulp

As anyone who has ever experienced it will tell you, pulp damage is no picnic. The fact that the pulp contain’s the teeth’s supply of blood vessels and nerves should give you some idea of what is in store once tooth decay reaches the pulp.

At this stage, you are likely to experience more severe pain, as well as a host of other unpleasant symptoms including swelling of the tooth and around the tooth, an odd taste in your mouth and a rotten smell coming from the tooth itself. The tooth may also change colour. 

Once the pulp inside your tooth has decayed, you will need a root canal to fix it.

Abscess Formation

If the tooth decay stages are allowed to progress to this point without intervention, the final stage will be reached soon after the pulp has become infected. 

Eventually, a tooth abscess is going to form at the bottom of the tooth. This is bound to cause extreme pain and the infection may spread to the surrounding gums, tissues and bones. In some cases, the infection may even be life-threatening.

If you are lucky, a root canal may still do the trick at this point, but you are more likely to need to have the tooth removed completely.

How to strengthen and rebuild tooth enamel

Fortunately, an early stage tooth cavity can be reversed, if the developing cavity is identified in time and the right measures are taken.

Oral hygiene habits

The most effective way to stop and even reverse a developing cavity is to immediately get very serious about your oral hygiene.

The acids from plaque buildup are what cause the enamel erosion in the first place – so keeping your mouth as clean and free of plaque at all times as you possibly can is the first step. Make sure that you brush and floss twice a day, for at least two minutes each time. Use a fluoride toothpaste and fluoride mouthwash.

Fluoride treatment

Fluoride treatments can help rebuild and strengthen weakened enamel. 

Fluoride treatments are usually carried out by the dentist or by an oral hygienist. The treatment contain a high concentration of fluoride and are applied directly to the patient’s teeth.

Stage 1 early cavity FAQ

Can stage 1 cavities be reversed?

Yes, stage 1 cavities can be reversed. It requires a bit of dedication and effort to fully restore the enamel that has become weakened, but if you really make a dedication to staying on top of your daily oral hygiene, it is possible. 

Fluoride is one of the most effective tools available to you if you want to reverse early stage cavities. Brushing with a high fluoride toothpaste, using a fluoride mouthwash and receiving fluoride treatments is your best line of defence.

Can early cavities heal?

Yes. Amazingly, early stage cavities are reversible and can be healed.

It is important to be able to spot cavities in their earliest stage of development – because if you wait until they become clearly visible or until the decay hits the soft dentin layer that lies beneath the enamel, the only solutions available to you are either fillings or root canal therapy.

Can you stop cavity in early stages?

Yes, absolutely. If you go all-in on your oral hygiene habits and see your dentist or dental hygienist for some fluoride treatments, you can stop a cavity from getting worse.

Can a mild cavity be reversed?

Only if you catch it in its earliest stage of development. Tooth decay progresses through five distinct stages, and by the time you hit the second stage it is already too late to reverse the cavity.

Stage one cavities can be identified by the tiny white spots on the surfaces of the teeth. They are signs that the enamel has been weakened and that true cavities are soon going to form.


Preventing tooth decay is always the best way, but it is not always possible in practice. Fortunately, when tooth decay is identified early on, it can often be halted and even reversed completely. 

Fluoride is your superpower when it comes to reversing cavities. Combine fluoride treatments with practicing excellent daily oral hygiene and you will soon have reversed your stage 1 cavities by rebuilding your enamel while leaving little room for plaque bacteria to secrete their acids.

Dr Febin Mary George - Editor

With more than 10 years as a dental surgeon, Dr Febin Mary George is passionate about educating consumers around the world to help look after their teeth.

She completed her Bachelor of Surgery at the Century Institute of Dental Science and Research Centre in 2010.

Alongside editing the International Journal of Dental Clinics she has also written for major publications including Thrive Global.