By Clark B. Hammock, DMD, P.A.
Well, not exactly. The problem is we have a very simple question that unfortunately has a very complex answer. While the diagnosis of a cavity is by no means purely subjective, in truth, when we say “cavity”, we are using a very loose expression for the more technical term “dental caries”, also known as tooth decay. The process of dental caries, or the formation of a cavity in a tooth, is a gradual process. It starts with the buildup of dental plaque – a collection of bacteria whose function is to convert sugar to acid. It’s this acid that eats away at the teeth, creating decay and eventually forming a cavity.
There is not a one-size-fits-all definition for “cavity”
The first step is de-calcification. The tooth looks visibly intact but on a very small scale, part of the tooth is hollowed out. This eventually continues to where that hollowed-out area breaks down, forming a physical hole or a cavity in the tooth. In some cases, it may be necessary to treat the tooth during the de-calcification stage. In other cases, it may be best to simply monitor a tooth during this stage while taking measures to arrest or reverse the initial damage. Different dentists will have different approaches on when or what stage to treat a tooth, so there is not a one-size-fits-all definition that a “cavity” exists or does not exist during this emerging process of dental decay.
Imagine taking a gallon of white paint and then slowly mixing in red paint drop by drop. Technically, after the first drop of red, you no longer have white paint, but at what point would you define the paint as pink? It may be that the only thing we can really agree on is that the paint is no longer purely white. It’s very similar when defining cavities. We can all agree that the process of dental caries has begun, but there may be differing views on when an actual cavity is present.
Also read our blog post entitled, “How Can I Have Five Cavities, You Must Be Crazy!“