Tooth Cavities

Tooth Cavities


  1. A cavity is a hole that forms in a tooth due to tooth decay.
  2. Tooth cavities are caused by plaque, which is a sticky substance that binds to your teeth.
  3. A common way to treat a cavity is a tooth filling. This is a procedure in which your dentist uses a drill and removes decayed material from your tooth. Your dentist then fills your tooth with a substance, such as silver, gold, or composite resin.

A cavity, also called tooth decay, is a hole that forms in your tooth. Cavities start small and gradually become bigger when they’re left untreated. Since many cavities don’t cause pain in the beginning, it can be hard to realize that a problem exists. Regular dental appointments can detect tooth decay early. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, cavities and tooth decay are some of the most common health problems in the world. Anyone with teeth can develop cavities, including babies.

Finding out that you have a cavity might come as a surprise. This is especially true if you think you have a good oral hygiene routine. However, even if your dentist delivers this news, there are ways to treat a cavity and prevent new ones from forming. 

Symptoms of Tooth Cavities

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The symptoms of a cavity depend on the severity of the decay. They include: 

  • tooth sensitivity
  • tooth pain
  • a visible hole in your teeth
  • black or white staining on your teeth

Causes of Tooth Cavities

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Tooth cavities are caused by plaque, a sticky substance that binds to teeth. Plaque is a combination of:

  • bacteria
  • saliva
  • acid
  • food particles

Everyone has bacteria in their mouth. After eating or drinking foods with sugar, bacteria in your mouth turn sugar into acid. Plaque starts forming on your teeth soon after eating or drinking anything sugary. This is why regular brushing is important.

Plaque sticks to your teeth, and the acid in plaque can slowly erode tooth enamel. Enamel is a hard, protective coating on your teeth that protects against tooth decay. As your tooth enamel weakens, the risk for decay increases. 

Everyone is at risk for cavities, but some people have a higher risk. Risk factors include:

  • too many sugary or acidic foods and drinks
  • a poor oral hygiene routine, such as failing to brush or floss daily
  • not getting enough fluoride
  • dry mouth
  • eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia
  • acid reflux disease, which can result in stomach acid wearing down your tooth enamel

Cavities develop more often in the back teeth, according to the Mayo Clinic. These teeth have grooves and openings that can trap food particles. Also, these teeth are sometimes harder to reach when brushing and flossing.

Treatment Options for Tooth Cavities

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Tell your doctor about uncomfortable symptoms like tooth sensitivity or pain. Your dentist can identify tooth decay after an oral exam. However, some cavities aren’t visible from an oral exam. So, your dentist may use a dental X-ray to look for decay.

Treatment options depend on severity. There are several ways to treat a cavity.

Tooth Fillings

A dentist uses a drill and removes decayed material from a tooth. Your dentist then fills your tooth with a substance, such as silver, gold, or composite resin.


For more severe decay, your dentist may place a custom fit cap over your tooth to replace its natural crown. Your dentist will remove decayed tooth material before starting this procedure. 

Root Canal

When tooth decay causes the death of your nerves, your dentist will perform a root canal to save your tooth. They remove the nerve tissue, blood vessel tissues, and any decayed areas of your tooth. Your dentist will also check for infections and apply medication to the roots as needed. They’ll fill the tooth, and sometimes they’ll place a crown on it. 

If your dentist detects a tooth cavity in its early stage, a fluoride treatment may restore your tooth enamel and prevent further decay.

Dealing with Pain

Cavities and tooth decay can be the cause of a lot of pain and discomfort. You may want to find ways to soothe irritation while you wait for your dentist appointment. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a few things you can do to deal with discomfort temporarily:

  • Keep up your oral hygiene routine. Continue to brush and clean all parts of your mouth, including any sensitive areas.
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Check with your doctor if you can use OTC anesthetics.
  • Watch what you eat. Stay away from extremely hot or cold foods when eating or drinking.

Complications from Tooth Cavities

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A tooth cavity can cause a variety of complications if it’s left untreated. These include:

  • ongoing tooth pain
  • a tooth abscess, which can become infected and trigger life-threatening complications, like an infection that enters the bloodstream or sepsis
  • the development of pus around the infected tooth
  • an increased risk for breaking or chipping a tooth
  • difficulty chewing food

You may cause damage to your tooth that can’t be reversed if you put off seeing a dentist. At this point, the only way to fix the cavity is for your dentist to remove the tooth and replace it with an implant or bridge.

Preventing Tooth Cavities

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Tooth cavities are a common dental problem, but you can reduce your risk by doing the following:

  • Brush your teeth at least twice per day with a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss at least once daily, as recommended by the American Dental Association.
  • Eat fewer sugary and acidic foods, like sweets, candy, juice, soda, and refined carbohydrates.
  • Limit snacking between meals.

The following foods can help fight tooth decay:

  • fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
  • calcium-rich foods
  • xylitol sugarless chewing gum
  • unsweetened black or green tea
  • water with fluoride

Also, don’t forget to visit your dentist at least twice per year for regular teeth cleanings. This allows you to get treatment for any problems your dentist finds, and it will help prevent future dental problems.

You Asked, We Answered

  • I regularly rinse my mouth with mouthwash. Will this help prevent tooth decay or make it worse? How often should I use it, if at all?- Anonymous
  • As long as you use mouthwashes that carry the ADA seal and are labeled “therapeutic” (not “hygienic”), they can help reduce plaque, gingivitis, cavities, and bad breath. Some mouthwashes fight the bacteria present in plaque, a sticky film that forms on teeth and gums. They will certainly not make the tooth decay worse.

    - Steve Kim, MD

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