How do dentists identify cavities

How Do Dentists See Cavities?

I’m sure you have visited your dentist in the past, had your cleaning done, and been told during the exam that you have a cavity in your mouth. You brush twice a day, floss regularly, and visit your dentist twice a year. Yet here you are, surprised by the fact you have a cavity. Sure you occasionally skip flossing, but your teeth look and feel great to you! The next steps involve setting up another appointment if they can’t schedule the time then and there to give you your filling, and more money out of pocket so this cavity doesn’t get worse. While all of this is swirling through your head, have you also wondered how exactly the dentist saw the cavity in the first place? Below we touch on a few methods we use at our office to spot pesky cavities and want to inform you of how it’s done so you can see them for yourself.

How does a dentist spot a cavity in your mouth?


spotting a cavity

Every wonder how to see a cavity in your mouth? When you visit your family dentist, there are a few methods they may use to detect cavities. The first and most obvious way is by means of a visual inspection. At this stage, if you can visually see severe discoloration, enamel destruction, or possible holes in your teeth, it’s likely that you are already aware you may have a cavity. If it’s visible by the naked eye, it’s likely that the troublesome tooth is already experience some type of discomfort that ranges from sharp pain to possible unease when consuming something hot or cold. Most dental offices are equipped with what is called an “intraoral camera” that can take images of your teeth so you can see inside your mouth while sitting in the chair. The dentist will show you where the cavity is and there isn’t much confusion as this point, so most people who can visually see a cavity accept the fact they have one.

dental probe


The second way your dentist may identify a cavity in your mouth is by using a dental probe or dental explorer to check the crevices of your tooth for decay. If you have ever had your teeth cleaned, I’m sure you remember the doctor starting the exam with a small mirror in one hand and a tiny probe in the other. At what point does this step help solve the question of “How to see a cavity?” As the dentist moves their way around your mouth, the probe is busy at work searching the crevices of your teeth. It is small enough to enter the tiny crevices and if there is a cavity and bacteria present, the explorer sinks into it, thus identifying an area of the enamel that has been breached. This is a telltale sign that a cavity is present as tooth enamel is  the hardest biological substance in our bodies. A strong substance like that easily bounces a small probe off of it so if a cavity is present, the enamel is compromised and the probe sticks onto the tooth. This technique doesn’t always allow you as the patient to see the cavity but you can feel when the probe sticks to the tooth and thus can confirm there’s a very high probability of a cavity. Although this doesn’t answer the question of “How to see a cavity,” this technique helps you “feel” a cavity instead.

dental cavity

The third way of detecting whether a cavity is present or not is by means of using dental x-rays. X-rays are a great way of how to see a cavity. Dental x-rays are very important in detecting dental decay particularly between the teeth. You can see in the image above where the arrows are pointing to cavities spotted in the enamel. It requires many years of schooling, hence why dentists are doctors, to be able to identify cavities via x-rays so sometimes you as the patient might not fully understand what you’re looking at. You can see on the right hand side of the image, the enamel is “white” which shows the dentist that the enamel is dense and healthy. When you can start to see spots that are “radiolucent,” or spots that allow radio waves to pass through them, it shows that the enamel is not dense in that spot. The cause of the deterioration of enamel in that spot? Yep, you guessed it: A cavity!

It’s important that when you visit your dentist and are told you have a cavity to take a look yourself as well. Although you are not a doctor and they might be seeing things you cannot, it’s always good to use these techniques to understand what the doctor is seeing as well. Although doctors are always looking for your best interests, by working with them to understand what they are seeing when they mention a cavity will give you peace of mind in knowing your tooth really does need repairing.

All in all, it is vital that you live a healthy lifestyle and a great way to start doing so is by coming to our office twice a year to have a teeth cleaning in Alexandria VA and a routine exam. Our team is ready to welcome you into our office and are happy to get you back on track to a healthy mouth if you’ve missed a few dental appointments. We’ll happily work with you to show you how to see a cavity and how we go about repairing it to ensure your teeth remain healthy and strong.

Please feel free to give us a call today at (703) 719-9210 or head to our Contact Page to request an appointment time.


  1. Rhianna Hawk

    Wow, I had no idea that there was a way that I could actually see my own cavity. It’s great that dentists can use an intraoral camera to show me that, as you said. My tooth has been aching lately, and I’m considering getting it looked at, and I’ll be sure to ask if they can show me the cavity if there is one.

  2. Jenna Dunne

    My dentist always checks my teeth with a dental probe whenever I am visiting her. But once in a month, she uses x-ray just to be sure that my teeth is in good condition and no cavities can be found.

  3. Flemming Schwartz

    Very interesting that patients can follow what dentist is seeing. Last month I had my yearly checkup and my dentist found a cavity and said that one of my old fillings needed to be replaced. He said that he could should show me with the intraoral camera and on my x-ray, and I saw it all clearly. He also used the intraoral camera for a “during-the-process-view” after drilling before filling – scary!!! But after all a positive experience – though having two teeth drilled and filled wasn’t positive

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