Primary diagnosis involves inspection of all visible tooth surfaces using a good light source, dental mirror and explorer. Dental radiographs (RVG) may show dental caries before it is otherwise visible, particularly caries between the teeth. Large dental caries are often apparent to the naked eye, but smaller lesions can be difficult to identify. Visual and tactile inspection along with radiographs are employed frequently among dentists, particularly to diagnose pit and fissure caries. Early, uncavitated caries is often diagnosed by blowing air across the suspect surface, which removes moisture and changes the optical properties of the unmineralized enamel.
Since the carious process is reversible before a cavity is present, it may be possible to arrest the caries with fluoride and remineralize the tooth surface. When a cavity is present, a restoration will be needed to replace the lost tooth structure.
At times, pit and fissure caries may be difficult to detect. Bacteria can penetrate the enamel to reach dentin, but then the outer surface may remineralize, especially if fluoride is present. These caries, sometimes referred to as "hidden caries", will still be visible on x-ray radiographs, but visual examination of the tooth would show the enamel intact or minimally perforated.