Yes and no. Caries and cavities are often referred to as the same thing in oral health related articles and information, but there is a fundamental difference between the two terms. To further add to the confusion, tooth decay is often used alongside caries as separate terms to describe the process of bacterial damage to teeth, when in fact they are the same thing! How could three basic terms for a common oral condition get mixed up like this?
Well, to clear the air, let’s take a closer look at all three terms.
Tooth decay is the common term for dental caries
That’s right. Tooth decay is a commonly used layman term to describe the bacterial or infectious disease process that damages a tooth. The only difference between the two terms is that dental caries is the dental (or medical) term used to describe the very same process. Another difference is that tooth decay is the uncountable term (like “money”) whereas caries is the countable term (like “dollars”).
Dental caries (or tooth decay) ultimately develop into cavities
As acidic by-products from bacteria continue to break down tooth enamel, eventually caries extend closer to the dentin or inner tooth layer. Up until this point, the acid has slowly penetrated tooth enamel because it’s the hardest material in the human body. However, bacterial acid is quite corrosive and eventually, it manages to penetrate all the way through tiny holes in enamel to the dentin or inner tooth.
That’s when things take a turn for the worse.
With its hard protective enamel layer damaged or gone, dentin is exposed and vulnerable to bacterial infection and acid by-products. That’s because dentin is a softer, less mineralised material than enamel. Bacterial acid has no trouble breaking down dentin and does so a lot faster. So fast, in fact, that this accelerated process causes cavitation in the inner tooth. This continues to mushroom out until a “cave-like” cavity is formed.
At this point, tooth decay (or caries) becomes cavities (or deep caries).