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It seems like a complicated term, but “incipient caries” is just the clinical term for the white spots on your teeth that indicate weakness and the potential for a cavity. Of course, understanding why your teeth have white spots is an important part of treating and restoring your oral health. Sometimes called “incipient lesions,” these little white spots are areas of the teeth where enamel has deteriorated to the point that a cavity has begun, but has not necessarily progressed to the stage of needing major treatment. These initial caries can be treated easily if caught quickly, so keep an eye out for white spots that might tell the tale of weak enamel and the need for better oral hygiene.

What Are Incipient Caries?

Your teeth are covered in a hard substance called enamel. Enamel serves as the protective barrier between the sensitive nerves in your teeth and the outside environment. Wear and tear, acidic foods and poor oral hygiene can weaken enamel. When a hole forms in the enamel, it’s known as a cavity. If the wear is just surface-level, however, it’s known as incipient, or initial. These caries can be addressed without drilling or filling. The calling card of such caries are white spots on the teeth that aren’t necessarily limited to molars. They can form anywhere on the tooth’s surface.

How Can You Treat Them?

The good news is that if you notice white lesions on your teeth, the cavity hasn’t yet formed fully. Instead, it’s just an indication that the enamel in that spot has become compromised. One of the best ways to combat this issue, according to the American Association of Dental Consultants, is recalcification, or strengthening the calcium in the enamel. A toothpaste that rebuilds calcium in the teeth can help replenish calcium to strengthen weak spots and protect your teeth from environmental factors that could cause future lesions and spots.

Your dentist might also recommend an in-office fluoride treatment to help fortify weak areas of your teeth. If you’re self-conscious about the actual appearance of your white spots, a gentle tooth whitening product can help reduce the difference in color between the teeth and the spots.

According to the Journal of Conservative Dentistry, if your incipient caries have progressed to the point where they’re causing holes in the teeth, your dentist can fill the caries with a resin without having to drill into the tooth like he or she would a cavity. If you notice spots on your teeth, consult with your dentist for a treatment plan right away. If you wait, those minor lesions could cause full cavities (and require much more intervention).

Enamel-strengthening products can be used at home to deal with small caries, but early intervention is an absolute must if you want to avoid the drilling and filling of a cavity. Examine your teeth for white spots regularly and let your dentist know if you find anything suspicious. By treating caries early and continuing your oral hygiene routine, they’ll just be a minor blip in your oral health history.