Cavity vs. Stain: How To Know the Difference

Cavity vs. Stain: How To Know the Difference

Ali Fadakar -

We’ve all felt it – a surge of panic when you look at the mirror and examine your teeth, only to find a dark spot spreading over the surface. From then on, you try to restrain your smile for fear of someone spotting the tooth stain and saying something like, “About time for a dentist appointment, eh?”

But wait! Is a dark spot on your tooth necessarily a cavity? Not at all. It might actually be a tooth stain.

The trouble is that cavities and stains can look pretty close to one another, especially if you don’t have a lot of tooth sensitivity to speak of. How can you tell the difference?

In general, cavities are more of a handful to deal with than tooth stains. They’re painful, annoying, and usually result in a strong lecture from your dentist as they’re applying the necessary filling.

But let’s take a closer look at cavities vs stains and examine the big differences between them.

What is the Difference Between Cavities and Stains?

Though cavities and stains can look similar on the surface, they’re very different. 

A cavity is a permanently damaged area on your tooth. You might get cavities when bacteria gradually spread and chew through the enamel of your teeth. Left unchecked, cavities can eventually create holes in your teeth, leading to tooth rot and all kinds of other dental problems.

In contrast, stains are not nearly as dangerous. In fact, they only affect the aesthetics of your teeth. Tooth stains (also called tooth discoloration) occur when your teeth's enamel has been discolored by food or drink. Over time, your teeth’s enamel can become shaded by certain things, such as coffee, tomato sauce, and more.

But where cavities can eventually lead to tooth decay, stains do not necessarily mean that your teeth are unhealthy.

Even with this cut and dry difference, it can be tough to tell whether you have a cavity or a tooth stain, especially if you have multiple darkly colored spots throughout your teeth. Let’s take a closer look at tooth stains and cavities so you’re able to determine whether a dentist appointment is in order!

What Are the Signs of Tooth Stains?

Remember, tooth stains are characterized by their color alone. Tooth stains don’t typically affect the performance or health of your teeth, nor do they lower the integrity of your teeth and lead to rot. 


The primary and only sign of a tooth stain is, naturally, discoloration! But don’t cavities also cause discoloration?

They do, but not in the same way as a tooth stain. 

Tooth stains can crop up in a variety of colors – it’s all based on what you eat and drink or what food or beverage has caused the stains in the first place.

For example, tooth stains can be brown or black if you typically drink coffee and don’t brush your teeth shortly after. 

But tooth stains can also be:

  • Red if you eat a lot of tomatoes or tomato sauce products
  • Yellow if you eat sugary or corn starchy foods
  • Brown if you are a heavy smoker

Plus, tooth stains are more likely to cover an entire tooth or at least more surface area compared to the small spots characteristic of cavities. If you have an entire tooth that’s a yellowish or off-white color, chances are it’s a tooth stain instead of a massive cavity.

Speaking of yellowish teeth, sometimes you get tooth stains with age. As we get older, our teeth lose their uppermost layer of enamel, which wears down over the years of chewing and grinding. This exposes a little yellowish layer of tooth material called dentin. These “stains” aren’t really stains at all and can’t be treated.

What Are the Signs of Cavities?

Cavities can cause tooth discoloration, to be sure. In fact, if you have a tiny spot on one of your teeth and it’s black, gray, or brown, it may be a good idea to visit a dentist and get it checked out.

However, cavities are also usually accompanied by other noticeable (and painful) signs.


For starters, odds are you’ll experience a toothache if you have a cavity. This isn’t the same thing as sporadic or random sensitivity, which can crop up even in healthy teeth. A cavity-based toothache will likely be incessant or unending, constantly painfulness or aching in your mouth. Ouch!

If you have a toothache in just one tooth, even when eating or drinking hot or cold foods and beverages, chances are it’s a cavity instead of general tooth sensitivity.

Tooth Sensitivity

However, tooth sensitivity can also be a sign of a cavity. In the earliest stages, a cavity may not trigger a recurring or constant toothache. It might only trigger sensitivity when the cavity-affected tooth is exposed to sugary foods or drinks or hot or cold temperatures.

In contrast, tooth stains should never cause sensitivity or pain under any circumstances. They’re just aesthetic stains on the enamel of your teeth rather than small decaying areas where the enamel has been weakened or destroyed.

Pain While Eating or Drinking

Naturally, if you experience pain while eating or drinking, particularly when chewing on hard foods like nuts or chips, you might have a cavity affecting one or more teeth. Pay attention to the temperatures of the foods and beverages you consume – hot and cold food and drinks are more likely to cause tooth sensitivity or pain if you have a cavity.

Visible Holes or Pits

Pro tip – if you have a visible hole or pit in one of your teeth, do yourself a favor and see a dentist ASAP! Tooth stains should never cause holes in your teeth, but cavities are holes by their nature.

In fact, a hole or pit in your tooth is a sign of an advanced cavity. See a dentist quickly to limit the chances of requiring a root canal or other dental work!


Lastly, cavities can cause staining of your teeth… but not always. Some cavities can be particularly hard to spot until your next dentist appointment because they blend in with the off-white color of your teeth's enamel. Additionally, some cavities may be in spots that are difficult to see in the mirror.

Don’t count on stains to tell you when you’re getting cavities.

Are Tooth Stains Always the Sign of a Cavity?

No, but the two issues can be related. 

It all depends on the colors of the stains in question. If the stains are red or yellowish, they might primarily be because of your diet or brushing habits. 

On the other hand, tooth stains that are gray, black, or brown are more likely to be signs of cavities. Decaying enamel will often change into these colors as it is broken down.

Not sure whether you have a cavity or a tooth stain? Your best bet is to consider the other signs of a cavity mentioned above. If you don’t have any of those signs, odds are that the stain in question is just regular discoloration. 

How Can I Prevent Tooth Discoloration?

Tooth discoloration can be a real buzzkill each time you look in the mirror, especially if some of your favorite foods and drinks are the culprits behind your tooth stains. But we’ve got good news – you can prevent tooth discoloration through a few smart strategies.

  • Always brush your teeth after every meal. This is a little more than the twice per day standard recommendation from dentists, but it can go a long way toward preventing even darkly colored foods like tomato sauce or coffee from staining your teeth since you remove those food particles from your enamel ASAP.

  • You should also consider rinsing your mouth after every meal. This can be easier to stick with than brushing your teeth and can still provide some great stain-resistant results.

  • Use an electric toothbrush wherever possible. Electric toothbrushes provide better results and do a better job of getting rid of plaque, which can also lower the likelihood of tooth discoloration. The Zina 45 Sonic Pulse Toothbrush is a perfect example of a quality electric toothbrush that can help you minimize tooth discoloration.

  • Try whitening toothpaste for even better results. Whitening toothpaste can gradually whiten your enamel, counteracting any staining foods or drinks.

  • You can also use whitening dental systems. Whitening toothpaste, rinses, and other products can eliminate tooth stains and make your teeth more resistant to stains in the future. Supersmile’s Professional Whitening System combines specialized whitening toothpaste and a whitening accelerator paste for maximum effect.

  • Alternatively, consider making a few minor changes to your diet. If you drink a lot of coffee, for example, cut down on your coffee consumption so that your teeth are exposed to dark-colored liquid less often.

How Do I Prevent Cavities?

Fortunately, you can prevent cavities using many of the same tips for preventing tooth discoloration. But you should also follow some extra strategies to lower the likelihood of cavity formation and get on your dentist’s good side!

  • Brush after every meal if you're concerned about cavities. Floss at least twice per day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Flossing gets rid of food and bacteria from between your teeth, which the bristles of your toothbrush can't usually reach

  • Use a mouthwash to get rid of extra bacteria and to freshen your breath simultaneously

  • Avoid eating sugary foods or drinking sugary beverages, including sugared coffee, cookies, candy, and so on. Sugary foods and beverages are a huge cause of cavities in adults, partly because sugar can lurk where you least expect it in our modern diets


All in all, cavities and stains might seem to be similar on the surface. But it’s important to know how to distinguish one from the other and how to tackle both issues as they crop up.

Once you’ve figured out whether you have a cavity or a tooth stain, you can either visit a dentist or start working on whitening the stain yourself! 

Luckily, Supersmile has a host of excellent whitening and general dental care products. Check out all the ways we can help you get the smile you’ve dreamed of today!