A person experiencing caries may not be aware of the disease. The earliest sign of a new carious lesion is the appearance of a chalky white spot on the surface of the tooth, indicating an area of demineralization of enamel. This is referred to as a white spot lesion, an incipient carious lesion or a "micro-cavity". As the lesion continues to demineralize, it can turn brown but will eventually turn into a cavitation ("cavity"). Before the cavity forms, the process is reversible, but once a cavity forms, the lost tooth structure cannot be regenerated. A lesion that appears dark brown and shiny suggests dental caries were once present but the demineralization process has stopped, leaving a stain. Active decay is lighter in color and dull in appearance.
As the enamel and dentin are destroyed, the cavity becomes more noticeable. The affected areas of the tooth change color and become soft to the touch. Once the decay passes through the enamel, the dentinal tubules, which have passages to the nerve of the tooth, become exposed, resulting in pain that can be transient, temporarily worsening with exposure to heat, cold, or sweet foods and drinks. A tooth weakened by extensive internal decay can sometimes suddenly fracture under normal chewing forces. When the decay has progressed enough to allow the bacteria to overwhelm the pulp tissue in the center of the tooth, a toothache can result and the pain will become more constant. Death of the pulp tissue and infection are common consequences. The tooth will no longer be sensitive to hot or cold but can be very tender to pressure.
Dental caries can also cause bad breath and foul tastes. In highly progressed cases, an infection can spread from the tooth to the surrounding soft tissues. Complications such as cavernous sinus thrombosis and Ludwig angina can be life-threatening.
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