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Updated on July 13, 2022

Cavity vs Stain

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Cavity vs. Stain: How to Tell the Difference

If you’ve recently noticed discoloration on one or more of your teeth, you might have trouble figuring out whether it’s a cavity or a stain.

Cavities and stains can make parts of your teeth appear darker. Many things that cause staining can also contribute to cavities. But a few key details can help you tell the difference between the two.

dentist showing cutout of teeth

What Does a Cavity Look Like?

Cavities result from bacteria feeding on sugars that enter your mouth. These bacteria create acids that dissolve the mineral content of your teeth over time. This process is known as tooth decay.

A cavity may appear as a brown, black, or gray spot on a tooth. It may also be sticky. The size of the discolored area will likely stay the same over time.

Other Cavity Symptoms

Tooth decay is likely to have other symptoms besides discoloration, especially as it progresses. Be on the lookout for issues like:

  • Visible holes in teeth
  • Tooth sensitivity, especially in the discolored area
  • Toothache, which may remain constant or radiate to the ear or jaw area
  • Bad breath or foul taste that doesn’t go away

If you leave a cavity unchecked, it won’t go away. In most cases, it will slowly expand over time.

What Does a Stain Look Like?

Certain foods and drinks may stain your teeth. While stained teeth are unpleasant, they’re generally not accompanied by cavity-related pain or discomfort.

While a cavity usually appears as a discolored area or hole on the surface of a tooth, stains tend to be more evenly spread. If you notice that an entire tooth or group of teeth is a different color, you’re probably looking at a stain rather than tooth decay.

Various things can stain your teeth. They include:

  • Colored drinks, such as coffee, tea, soda, sports drinks, and wine
  • Antimicrobial mouthwashes containing chlorhexidine or cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC)
  • Tobacco use, whether smoking or otherwise
  • Certain foods, such as berries, beets, tomato sauce, soy sauce, curries, and chocolate
  • Tetracycline, a medication used to treat a wide range of conditions, including acne and skin infections

A buildup of dental plaque can also cause tooth stains. Dental calculus (hard, calcified plaque) may appear yellow, gray, brown, or black. Certain oral bacteria can cause brown or black stains, which are sometimes associated with a lower incidence of tooth decay. 

Most of these causes of tooth staining are avoidable, but prolonged poor oral hygiene can make them harder to remove.

How to Get Rid of Tooth Stains

Stained teeth generally have what’s known as extrinsic discoloration. This means the stain isn’t part of the tooth and can probably be removed.

In some cases, teeth show intrinsic discoloration, which may reflect a condition you were born with, certain medications, or an injury. This type of discoloration isn’t as easy to remedy.

Worn enamel can also lead your teeth to appear yellow. The dentin of your teeth, which lies underneath the enamel, has a natural yellowish color.

You may be able to get rid of tooth stains at home simply by brushing your teeth regularly. You can also try whitening toothpaste or another whitening product, or brush your teeth with a bit of baking soda.

Always use caution when using any of these products. They can be abrasive or corrosive enough to cause damage to your enamel. This heightens your risk for stained teeth.

Talk to your dentist if you’re concerned about a persistent tooth stain. They can offer advice and help you understand your options for professional treatment.

Your dentist may also recommend professional whitening or restorative treatments for intrinsically discolored teeth.

Tips for Preventing Stains

With regular, good oral hygiene and a bit of attention to detail, you can prevent your teeth from becoming stained. Try the following:

  • Brush and floss your teeth regularly, especially after meals. This will keep unwanted bacteria away and get rid of lingering food and drink residue. It is recommended to wait 30 minutes after eating to brush teeth so the enamel has remineralized.
  • Dilute, reduce, or use a straw for drinks that are likely to stain. For example, you can add a bit of milk to coffee or drink soda through a straw.
  • Reduce your intake of sugary drinks, alcohol, and tobacco. This will give your teeth less exposure to possible staining, and it’ll be good for your oral and overall health.
  • Chew sugar-free gum that contains xylitol to help keep your teeth clean.

How to Fix Cavities

Cavities may stop growing for a short time, but they don’t go away without treatment. If you’re concerned about cavities, make an appointment with your dentist as soon as possible.

Your dentist can treat minor cavities with fillings. To place a filling, they will remove the damaged portion of your tooth before filling it in with sterile material.

If you have advanced tooth decay, your tooth may require root canal treatment to be saved. In some cases, a tooth has to be removed.

Tips for Preventing Cavities

Just as you can prevent tooth stains, you can also prevent tooth decay. To reduce your risk of developing cavities:

  • Maintain regular, high-quality oral hygiene. Brush and floss regularly and thoroughly (but not aggressively).
  • Visit your dentist regularly, at least twice a year.
  • Cut back on sugary and acidic foods. The oral bacteria that cause tooth decay feed on sugar, and acidic foods can damage your teeth.
  • Use an antimicrobial mouthwash.
  • Chew a xylitol-containing sugar-free gum, which can help prevent cavities and stains.

Summary

A cavity (or tooth decay) can sometimes look similar to a tooth stain and vice versa. Usually, you can tell the difference with a closer look.

Generally, a cavity affects a defined area of a tooth, whereas stained teeth tend to affect more than one tooth. Various foods, drinks, and habits can stain your teeth. Drinks like coffee, tea, and wine are major culprits, as is tobacco use.

Oral bacteria causes tooth decay. Cavities are damaged parts of teeth that have begun to decay.

Both tooth stains and cavities can be treated professionally. They can also both be prevented with regular oral hygiene and careful attention to diet and other oral habits.

6 Sources Cited
Last updated on July 13, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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  4. Prathap, Sruthy, et. al. "Extrinsic stains and management: A new insight." J. Acad. Indus. Res. vol. 1,8 : 435-442.
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  6. Middleton, Anna. “Tooth whitening versus stain removal.BDJ Team 4, 17175 . https://doi.org/10.1038/bdjteam.2017.175
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