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Cavities, Decay & Caries — Is There a Difference?

Difference between cavities, decay and caries.

Dear Doctor,
What's the difference between cavities, decay and caries?

Dear Michelle,
Fair question, though not exactly a rose by any other name because all of these terms describe the same thing. Tooth decay is the lay term for dental caries. Dental caries is the medical, or actually dental, name given to an infectious disease process that results in damage to the various layers of the tooth: the outer enamel, inner dentin and even the cementum (outer root material) of teeth. In a nutshell, or more precisely in a susceptible tooth, bacteria metabolize (convert) sugars from your diet into acids that damage the tooth structure, resulting in — you guessed it — cavities. It can also attack the cementum of exposed root surfaces, causing root surface caries.

Although the infective process can vary, this bacterially produced acid usually attacks the protected areas of teeth, meaning the microscopic pits and fissures and contact areas between the teeth where a toothbrush can't reach. As enamel breaks down (and minerals are dissolved out of the tooth surface), the process eventually penetrates into the underlying dentin, which contains much less mineral than the enamel. The process progresses faster in the softer dentin, where it mushrooms beneath the enamel thereby undermining it, causing “cavitation” — true cavity formation.

Too much information? You get the point.