Tooth Erosion v Decay: What’s the difference?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Tooth erosion and tooth decay are two of the most common problems that people encounter with their teeth.

Many people mistake tooth erosion and tooth decay for the same ailment, using the terms interchangeably. The truth however is that although tooth erosion and tooth decay are both natural biological processes, they have two different causes and consequences.

Tooth Decay

Your mouth is home to naturally occurring bacteria (dental plaque) which break down carbohydrates (sugars) found in food and beverages into acid.  This acid then eats into the tooth causing tooth decay.

Have you experienced the slight sticky or fuzzing feeling on your teeth when you haven’t brushed for a while? That’s plaque sitting on your teeth.

Plaque is fairly easy to remove with regular brushing and flossing; however if not removed, , it sits on the teeth releasing acid which will eventually eat through the tooth enamel. This process is known as tooth decay – or in ‘dentist speak’ dental caries.  Over time it will accumulate and harden into tartar – which isn’t so easy to remove. Tartar requires removal by a dentist using special tools. If tartar isn’t removed it leads to gum disease.

Once the acid produced by plaque dissolves the enamel and breaches the inner layer of your tooth, the bacterial plaque can invade even further eventually reaching the dental pulp (or nerve) causing great pain and infection. Unfortunately, tooth decay results in permanent and irreversible damage to teeth.

Tooth Erosion

Unlike tooth decay, tooth erosion is caused by acids contained in food or from the stomach– not the acidic by-product from bacteria.

Some food and beverages contain acids that can cause the enamel to erode away. As the tooth enamel gets thinner, the inner layer Dentine may be exposed, the teeth become more sensitive to hot and cold.  Fortunately saliva contains minerals for teeth to remineralise themselves, but frequent consumption of harmful food and beverages as well as gastric reflux can easily overpower this natural re-mineralisation process.

Tooth erosion can be easily mistaken for the wear and tear of the tooth’s surface due to clenching, grinding and misalignment of teeth.  This cause of tooth loss is termed dental attrition.


Tooth erosion and tooth decay are similar in that they both involve damage to the protective enamel on teeth, but with different causes.

Tooth erosion happens every time we eat and drink acidic foods and drinks and in individuals with untreated gastric reflux. Treatment involves avoiding these food and drinks, and seeking help from your GP for gastric reflux.  Once significant erosion has occurred it will require intervention by your dentist to restore the missing enamel.  Our saliva has only a small capacity to remineralise our teeth so prevention is better than cure.

Tooth decay is caused by bacterial plaque, results in permanent and irreversible damage to your teeth and if not caught early can invade the dental nerve causing significant pain and infection. If detected in the early stages, a dentist can usually restore the cavity and halt the process.  Again prevention is better than cure and only requires good oral hygiene techniques including brushing and flossing.

Posted in: Advice, Dental health

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