An Easy Way to Distinguish Them

Keeping your teeth healthy is a key part of overall health. Cavities and discoloration, or staining, are two common teeth problems. While they can have similar appearances, including brown spots between teeth, there are ways to distinguish a cavity from a stain. When you know how to spot a cavity and what causes teeth stains, you’ll be more in control of your oral health. 

This article will highlight the differences between cavity vs stain. It will explain how to spot a cavity, what causes teeth stains and what treatment you need for each. 

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Cavity vs. Stain: Overlapping Symptoms

Both a cavity and a stain can cause discoloration between the teeth. However, they have different causes and treatments. 

A cavity is an area of tooth decay caused by bacteria. A cavity may appear as a brown stain between teeth, a tiny hole in the tooth, or white spots between teeth. 

Cavities happen when the hard outer part of a tooth, called the enamel, is damaged. Cavities need treatments, usually fillings, or they can continue to grow. Over time, that can lead to tooth sensitivity and other symptoms, but at first, cavities aren’t painful. 

Stains, on the other hand, are areas of discoloration on a tooth. They’re not damaged, per se, and they don’t necessarily need treatment. Most stains only affect the tooth enamel and are called extrinsic stains. Others affect the entire tooth and are called intrinsic stains.

Do Stains on Teeth Mean Cavities?

If you notice stains on your teeth, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have cavities. Cavities often appear as small holes, brown spots, or white spots, usually between the teeth. Stains are more widespread. However, when in doubt, you should see your dentist. It’s important to get regular dental care since you sometimes can’t see cavities developing between teeth. 

Different Causes

Extrinsic stains are often caused by the food and drink that you consume. Tea, coffee, curries, wine and some fruits and vegetables can leave your teeth looking discolored. So can tobacco use and not brushing and flossing.

Intrinsic stains are caused by trauma to the tooth itself. This often occurs before you’re born, or in childhood. Intrinsic stains appear gray, and can be caused by some antibiotic use, falls and injuries. More rarely, white stains can be a sign of fluorosis, a condition caused by too much fluoride. 

Cavities are caused when the enamel of a tooth is damaged by plaque. Plaque is a buildup of bacteria. These bacteria produce acid when you eat sugars. The acid, in turn, damages your teeth by eating away the enamel.

How To Tell If You Have a Cavity or Stain

If you’re not sure whether you have a cavity or a stain, ask your doctor at your next teeth cleaning appointment. However, there are also some signs you can monitor at home. If you have pain or sensitivity, for example, it’s likely that you have a cavity. Stains don’t cause pain.

Cavities have a predictable progression:

  • White spots begin to form on the teeth. This is the first sign that the enamel is breaking down, although the damage may be reversible at this stage.
  • A light brown spot shows that a cavity has formed. 
  • Dark brown or black spots show that the cavity is becoming deeper and more severe. 

Stains generally get worse with time. You might notice that they appear are vibrant after you’ve consumed foods that contribute to discoloration, like wine or coffee.

Seeing a Dentist

Seeing a dentist regularly is a way to take care of your health. Ideally, you should see a dentist every six months. If you have discoloration, whether it’s caused by staining or cavities, it’s a sign that your teeth might need some TLC. Making a dentist appointment gives you the opportunity to discuss your concerns and get the treatment you need. 


Stains don’t necessarily need treatment, although some people want to lighten their stains for aesthetic reasons. Often, professional or at-home teeth whitening can help remove stains. Intrinsic stains, unfortunately, aren’t easy to correct. 

If you have a cavity, you’ll need treatment from the dentist. The most common treatment for a cavity is a filling. This removes the decayed area of the tooth and stops the cavity from progressing. In rarer cases, if the cavity is severe, you may need a root canal. If the damage is very severe, your dentist may recommend pulling the tooth. This is known as a dental extraction. 

Healthy Teeth Tips 

Having good dental hygiene can help prevent both cavities and stains. To take care of your teeth and avoid cavities and stains, follow these steps:

  • Brush and floss your teeth twice daily to remove plaque
  • See a dentist every six months for teeth cleaning
  • Avoid eating too many sugary foods
  • Use a straw when drinking sugary beverages or drinks that can discolor your teeth
  • Be proactive about speaking with your dentist when you notice damage


Cavities and stains can both cause your teeth to become discolored. Cavities are usually in one or two spots, whereas staining is widespread. Stains don’t need treatment, but can be whitened for cosmetic reasons. Cavities are areas of decay that must be treated before they become bigger. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you reverse teeth yellowing?

    In many cases, tooth yellowing can be reversed by whitening procedures. These can be done by a professional, like your dentist, or at home. 

  • Why are my teeth stained if I brush every day?

    Tobacco use and the foods you eat, including coffee, tea and wine, can all contribute to discoloration. If you brush twice a day and still notice staining, try brushing immediately after you eat or drink. 

  • How does a cavity look in the beginning?

    The first sign of a cavity is white marks on the teeth. After that, a cavity may appear light brown, becoming darker with time. 

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By Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.