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Stages of Tooth Decay in Children

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Over 91% of all Australians have some form of tooth decay, but it’s not just an adult dental concern. Unlike adults, the stages of tooth decay are harder to identify in children. 

While tooth decay starts as a small, painless problem, it gets progressively worse if left untreated. Knowing what to look out for makes all the difference when it comes from preventing small lesions from turning into damaging cavities. 

Early detection and treatment is possible with a combination of at-home care and regular dentist check-ups, who can quickly treat the various stages of tooth decay. 

Symptoms of tooth decay 

Your child might not be able to explicitly tell you where their pain is coming from, so parents should be on the lookout for the following symptoms, which can occur at all stages of tooth decay:

Early stages of children’s tooth decay

  • Complaints of toothache, particularly if there’s a pattern (i.e. at mealtimes, or ongoing heat/cold sensitivity)
  • A visible hole in the tooth
  • White, brown or black spots on the tooth
  • Swollen, sore or bleeding gums
  • Complaint of a bad taste in the mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Fevers
  • Irritability 

Take your child to see a GP if their temperature is above 38°C and they have any of the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting and refusing to drink 
  • Sudden drowsiness
  • Problems with breathing
  • Pain that doesn’t get better with pain relief medication

Causes of tooth decay 

There are a number of factors that drive the various stages of tooth decay, but cavities don't form overnight without warning—they are preventable. 

Sugary diet

Bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar. Foods that contain a lot of sugar and carbohydrates stick to the surface of the teeth, providing a perfect environment for tooth decay to thrive.

Poor dental hygiene

Your child should brush their teeth at least twice a day, and after every snack or treat. Get your little one into the habit of flossing regularly, and always supervise children under eight years.

Fluoride deficiency 

Fluoride strengthens the enamel of each tooth, which helps resist tooth decay. Kids should use a fluoride toothpaste once they are 18 months

Dental crevices 

It can be harder for kids to brush their teeth if they have dental crevices, which can trap plaque and promote tooth decay. Your dentist will be able to check for dental crevices.

Dry mouth

Kids who suffer from dry mouth have an increased chance of tooth decay and forming cavities because saliva plays a huge role in ‘washing away’ bacteria and plaque.

Baby bottle

Does your kid fall asleep with a bottle of milk or juice in their mouth? If so, try to wean them from the habit. Falling asleep with sugary drinks can accelerate the stages of tooth decay, even for babies and toddlers. Read more Bottle Rot in our article here.

What are the stages of tooth decay in children?

You should never ignore the signs of tooth decay in children. If you notice a problem with your child's teeth, schedule a dentist appointment right away. Outside of regular dental checkups, be on the lookout for pain, pressure and sensitivity.

Stage one: white spots

As plaque begins to build up on the tooth, small white spots will start to form—a process known as demineralisation. This very early stage of tooth decay is reversible with the right treatment. 

Stage two: enamel decay

At this stage of decay, teeth can't restore the minerals they need. A lesion forms inside of the tooth, which breaks down the enamel under its surface. If left unchecked, the surface of the tooth might break. Make sure you visit your dentist right away if this happens. 

Stage three: dentin decay

At this stage of tooth decay, your child will start feeling some amount of pain. The dentin is the layer of your tooth that lies between the enamel and the pulp. Once the decay eats through the enamel, it will begin to break down the dentin. A dental filling is the best treatment to prevent the bacteria from spreading any farther. 

Stage three: pulp deterioration

The pulp is the centre of the tooth. As the decay infects the pulp, it will stop producing dentin. Instead, pus will form around the pulp, killing all the blood vessels and nerves inside the tooth. 

When the decay reaches the pulp, your child will be in a lot of pain. At this stage of tooth decay, the only treatment option is a root canal

Stage four: abscess formation

This is also the most painful stage of tooth decay. Once the decay reaches the root tip of the tooth, an abscess will form. This can cause the gums and tongue to swell, and it risks infecting the conjoining bones. Your child will need immediate treatment, which could include a root canal, a dull extraction, or another type of oral surgery. 

Stage five: loss of tooth

Tooth extraction is the only option if earlier stages of tooth decay have been untreated. Early identification of your child’s tooth decay is key to avoiding long-term consequences. 

Do you think your child is suffering from one of the stages of tooth decay? Contact us today to talk about different treatment options.

Interested in Children's dentistry? You may also be interested in these articles:

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