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Is It a Cavity or Stain? How to Find Out

by | Mar 5, 2021

You may have been brushing your teeth or looking in a mirror when you first noticed the dark spot on your tooth. You probably took a closer look, but were unable to tell if it was a cavity or just a stain. Fortunately, you can take steps to resolve unhealthy cavities and embarrassing stains – but only if you know which one you are dealing with.



About the Appearance of a Cavity vs Stain<

Cavities and stains may look similar at first glance, but there are differences in their appearance. Cavities typically appear as brown, black, or grey spots on teeth. The dark spots appear when bacteria destroys tooth enamel, which is the tough protective layer covering the teeth. Holes in the enamel can take on a dark appearance.

Stains, by comparison, can be almost any color, including brown, yellow, black, or even orange, purple, or red. The color of a stain usually depends on its cause: brown stains are often the result of smoking or chewing tobacco, for example, while red or purple stains may be from wine or certain foods. Some types of bacteria on the surface of teeth can cause orange stains. White spots may be the result of excessive fluoride during the development of tooth enamel, a condition known as fluorosis, while taking tetracycline during enamel development may cause brown stains. No matter how much you brush, your teeth can still become stained.

Teeth discoloration may also be the result of plaque and tartar. Plaque is a film consisting of saliva, food debris, and bacteria. Left in place by poor brushing and flossing, plaque can turn into tartar, which is a hard, calcified deposit. Tartar is yellow- or brown-colored, and is very difficult to remove at home.

Fortunately, professional dental cleanings can remove tartar and the stains it causes. Cosmetic dentistry procedures can also remove stains with in-home and in-office professional teeth whitening procedures, which leave teeth looking white, bright, and healthy.



Symptoms of a Cavity

Other than discoloration, stains do not cause other symptoms. Cavities, on the other hand, can cause a wide variety of symptoms that serve as early warning signs. These symptoms include:

  • Tooth pain
  • Sensitivity
  • Visible holes

Cavities develop when bacteria eat holes in the tooth enamel. Left untreated, the bacteria can cause tooth decay and even bigger holes that go through the enamel and into the deeper structures of the tooth. Dentin sits just below the enamel; it surrounds and protects the dental pulp that contains blood vessels and nerves. As the cavity progresses through dentin, it exposes the nerves to cause tooth pain and sensitivity to hot and cold temperature. In time, visible holes may appear.



Fixing Cavities and Stains



Repairing cavities

To repair a cavity and stop tooth decay, your dentist may recommend a filling. In this procedure, the dentist numbs your teeth, gums, and surrounding tissue to reduce or completely stop discomfort you might experience during the procedure. Next, your dentist will use a drill to remove the decayed areas of the tooth. Finally, the dentist will fill the drilled out area with a safe material that provides structure to the tooth and prevents the decay from spreading.

Teeth whitening for stains

Teeth whitening can restore teeth to their natural tooth shade, or even whiter than their natural tooth shade. Opalescence Teeth Whitening at Triangle Dentistry brings teeth to their whitest shade possible.

Taking care of your cavity or stain is important for your teeth, gums, and oral hygiene – dental care for these issues can help keep your teeth looking their best too. For more information on how to tell the difference between a cavity vs stain, and on how to treat them, contact Triangle Dentistry.


Triangle Dentistry, located in Raleigh, NC, provides a state-of-the-art facility that offers exceptional general dental and specialty services guided by empathy of a patient’s needs and desires. Services range from dental crowns to veneers and whitening procedures. For further information, questions, or to schedule an appointment, contact the office at (919) 847-6000