Have you ever wondered how long it takes for a cavity to form? Can they form overnight? Or does it take weeks? Months? Years? Knowing more about what cavities are and how long it takes them to form can help you to take better care of your teeth. Even though you have probably heard about cavities before, in order to determine how long it takes a cavity to form, we must first look at how cavities form.
Cavities are holes in the tooth that occur when bacteria in your mouth release acids that destroy your tooth enamel. These bacteria reside in dental plaque, which is a clear film that sticks to the surface of your teeth. Plaque traps food particles and bacteria feed on the sugars from these foods. The more sugar you consume, the more the bacteria eat and the more acidic waste is produced.
Although dental plaque is found on all the teeth, there are certain places where it tends to accumulate and these places are some of the most common locations for cavities. One common location for cavities is within the texturized chewing surface of the molars and premolars. These cavities are known as pit and fissure cavities. Cavities can also form on the tooth roots when the gums recede. This is because the enamel is very thin on the roots since they are normally protected by the gums. Finally, cavities can also form on the smooth surfaces of the teeth, however smooth-surface cavities are not as common as the other types of cavities.
Regardless of where the cavity is located, all cavities develop in the same way. The location of the cavity, however, can affect the rate at which the cavity moves through these developmental stages. Tooth decay, or cavities, are said to occur in five stages that are as follows:
Stage 1: Demineralization
The first stage of cavity development occurs when the acids from bacteria cause the enamel to lose minerals. Since tooth enamel gains its strength from and is primarily composed of minerals, losing minerals weakens the enamel. Demineralization can be seen as white areas on the teeth. When caught early, stage 1 may be able to be reversed by remineralizing the tooth enamel with fluoride treatments.
Stage 2: Enamel Decay
When demineralization is not caught in time or if it does not respond to fluoride, then enamel decay will occur. Enamel decay is characterized by a small to medium cavity that has eroded through the enamel layer. At this stage, a cavity will form in the enamel that cannot be reversed and must be treated with a dental filling.
Stage 3: Dentin Decay
As the bacteria continue to erode through the tooth they will hit the layer underneath the enamel known as the dentin layer. Dentin decay is characterized by a medium to large cavity that has eroded through the enamel and dentin layers. Since the dentin is normally protected by the enamel, dentin decay can cause pain and/or tooth sensitivity. Additionally, once a cavity has reached the dentin layer, it will start to grow faster since the dentin layer is not as strong as the enamel.
Stage 4: Pulp Decay
The innermost layer of the tooth is known as the pulp layer, which is composed of blood vessels and the tooth nerve. Once decay-causing bacteria have reached the pulp layer, this causes a pulp infection inside the tooth. This infection causes nerve inflammation and pain. Unfortunately, the only way to treat a pulp infection is to remove the dental pulp from the inside of the tooth in a procedure known as a root canal. The tooth is then restored with a dental crown to maintain its function.
Stage 5: Abscess
When a pulp infection is not caught early enough, the infection can continue to spread past the pulp and through the root canals inside the tooth roots. When this happens, it usually results in an abscess that forms at the base of the tooth roots. These abscesses often cause extreme pain. At this stage, it is likely that the tooth will need to be extracted. In some cases, however, a root canal may be able to save the tooth.
Generally speaking, most cavities take years to form, although there have been cases of cavities forming in a matter of months. The fact that cavities develop in stages is one main factor that affects how long it takes them to form. As mentioned before, the location of the cavity can also play a role in how long it takes a cavity to form, especially considering that certain locations are exposed to more bacteria than others. As a general rule, cavities tend to develop faster in locations where there are higher bacterial populations, since more damage is done to the tooth. Some other factors that can play a role in how fast a cavity develops are how much sugar you consume daily and your dental hygiene routine.
Since sugar feeds the bacteria and is ultimately converted into the acid waste product that causes cavities, a higher sugar intake on a regular basis usually means that cavities can form faster. Additionally, mistakes with dental hygiene can also increase the rate of tooth decay. Some mistakes that can cause tooth decay to occur faster are not brushing your teeth for two minutes, frequently missing certain locations, not regularly brushing, not flossing, and skipping dental cleanings.
Not only is it important to know how long it takes for cavities to form, but it is also important to realize how long it takes for a tiny cavity to evolve into an abscess that requires a tooth extraction. While there is no specific answer for how long this takes, the rate of decay increases significantly once it has passed the enamel layer. This means that while it may take a while for a small cavity to initially form, it will progress faster once it has formed. When decay reaches the pulp layer, you are at risk of losing your tooth.
Therefore you should always visit your dentist as soon as possible if you think you have a cavity or if you start to notice white spots on the surface of your teeth. Better yet, keep up with your semi-annual dental exams so your dentist can detect cavities in the first stage where they can be reversed.