If you’ve ever had a filling before, you might have been surprised to learn you had a cavity. You probably wondered, “What does a cavity look like anyway? How can the dentist tell I have a cavity?”
With many people behind on dental exams because of recent Covid restrictions, you may even question if you have a cavity now. Here’s all the information you need about cavities, including how to prevent them and when you should definitely see the dentist.
What Is a Cavity?
A cavity is simply a hole in your tooth. The cavity starts on the surface of the tooth and if untreated will continue to work its way inward towards the dentin (bony tissue beneath the outer enamel) and nerves connected to the tooth. That’s when a cavity can get really painful (see below). It can also become infected and cause an abscess, which is a pocket of pus around inflamed tissue.
You can have multiple cavities in one tooth. And you can get a cavity in any tooth in your mouth, including baby teeth. People of all ages can get cavities, from infants to senior citizens.
Cavities are a significant health problem and expense
Cavities are permanent damage to teeth and cannot be reversed. You might also hear cavities referred to as tooth decay or caries. Cavities are a major health problem around the globe, including in the United States. Consider these statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
- Approximately 1 out of every 6 children between the ages of 6 and 11 have had at least one cavity.
- More than a quarter of adults have untreated cavities.
- About 1 out of 6 people over the age of 65 have lost all their teeth.
- Smokers are 3 times more likely to lose their teeth.
- Over 34 million school hours are lost each year to dental emergencies.
- An estimated $45 billion in productivity is lost annually to oral disease.
- In 2018, $136 billion was spent in the US on dental care, including cavity diagnosis and treatment.
What Causes Cavities?
Technically speaking, cavities are caused by progressive tooth decay that happens in three stages.
Formation of plaque
If you eat a lot of sugars, including starches, and don’t clean your teeth well, plaque will form on your teeth due to normal mouth bacteria feeding on those sugars. Plaque is a clear film that feels slightly sticky. You may have felt it on your teeth after an extended period of not brushing.
Once plaque hardens into tartar (AKA calculus), it’s harder to remove, and it actually protects the bacteria that cause plaque, to begin with. Plaque can also move under the gum line and cause gum disease or periodontitis.
Attack of plaque
Plaque on the surface of the teeth eats away at minerals in enamel, the hard outer coating. Tiny holes open up in the enamel, which are the earliest forms of cavities. This makes it easier for bacteria and acids in plaque to keep moving towards the dentin. Dentin has microscopic tubes in it that connect to the underlying nerves. That’s why tooth sensitivity is often a calling card of this phase of cavity development.
Continue destruction of the tooth
Without intervention, erosion of the tooth continues to the innermost tooth material, the pulp. This is where all the nerves and blood vessels lie. Bacteria present can cause the pulp to become inflamed and swollen. Pressure from the swelling results in severe nerve pain. At this stage, pain may even extend to the bone above or below the tooth.
Cavity risk factors
There are many things that can put you or a family member at greater risk for cavities:
- Consuming certain foods and drinks - sugary foods like milk, soda, sweets, dry cereal, and dried fruit that cling to the teeth and aren’t easily swept away by your saliva
- Sipping soda or sugary beverages throughout the day
- Frequent snacking
- Bedtime baby bottles and toddler sippy cup drinking - leaves sugars on the teeth for many hours afterward
- Dry mouth and lack of saliva - can be caused by not drinking enough water and chemotherapy, as well as certain health conditions and medications
- Very young and very old age
- Inadequate or infrequent brushing
- Tooth location - molars and back teeth are most vulnerable because they’re the hardest to reach and have more pits on the surface that hold sugars and plaque
- Inadequate fluoride
- Worn or broken fillings in old cavities
- Acid reflux (AKA GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease) - stomach acid flowing back into the mouth attacks the enamel
- Eating disorders - can cause tooth erosion from repeated vomiting or lack of saliva production
What Does a Cavity Look Like?
Cavities look a little different in each dental patient’s mouth. Sometimes we have to inspect the teeth very slowly and carefully or even use x-rays to find them. We also go by the patient’s symptoms (see below) as clues about where to look.
Often a cavity will look like a dark spot on the tooth, typically yellow, brown, or black in color. Early on, it may resemble tooth staining or a slight discoloration. As cavities progress, the holes get bigger and usually darker. A little dot can ultimately consume almost the entire tooth.
How Do You Know You Have a Cavity?
Seeing a cavity in your own mouth can be tricky. Even dental professionals often need to use a mirror when performing patient exams. But you may certainly feel a cavity. Often the complications of dental cavities overlap with symptoms. You should make an appointment with your dentist soon if you experience any of the following:
- Tooth sensitivity, especially to heat or cold
- Pain (may be extreme)
- Swelling of the mouth or jaw
- Swollen or bleeding gums
- Difficulty chewing (may cause weight loss and malnutrition)
- Pus around your teeth or gums (indicates an infection or abscess)
- Tooth chipping, cracking, or loss
- A hole or crater that you can see or feel on a tooth
- A soft or “boggy” spot on a tooth
- Dark spots on a tooth
- Persistent bad breath or an unpleasant taste in your mouth
How Are Cavities Treated?
If a cavity has destroyed too much of a tooth, we sometimes have to remove it. Also, if a large cavity is present in a baby tooth that will fall out soon anyway, we often elect to pull the tooth. In general, though, we try to preserve what’s left of the tooth, since that’s less painful and less expensive, and it’s better for your bite and oral structure.
Therefore, most cavities are treated by filling them. Dentists have a wide range of options for filling materials available nowadays, so you can pick one that works aesthetically and financially, including being covered by dental insurance. These are the materials we have at our disposal.
- Cast gold: long-lasting and strong but very expensive, time-consuming to place, and don’t match the natural tooth color
- Silver (amalgam): durable and relatively inexpensive but look unnatural and require extra space in the tooth, plus may contain trace amounts of mercury
- Tooth-colored composite: the best choice to match teeth and can be used with chipped or broken teeth but wear out faster and cost more than silver fillings
- Ceramic: usually made of porcelain and resist staining but cost as much as gold
- Glass ionomer: made of acrylic and glass that can be used around nerves, below the gum line, and with very young children
Before applying the filling, the dentist numbs the area around the tooth to eliminate pain. Then, the decayed area of the tooth is removed with a fine dental instrument. The area is next cleaned, and sometimes a protective covering is applied to the nerve. Once the filling is in place, it may need to cure for a short time if it is a composite filling. As a final step, the filling is trimmed and polished.
Can You Prevent Cavities?
Suffering from cavities is not inevitable. But there are many things you and your children can do to prevent cavities from forming in the first place.
Frequent tooth brushing with good technique is your first line of defense against cavities. Ideally, you want to brush after every meal, but you should definitely brush at least twice per day with a fluoride toothpaste. Keep a toothbrush and toothpaste with you in your bag, backpack, or briefcase so you can brush as often as needed. Help young children with regular brushing until they’re able to do it on their own.
Daily flossing should be on your to-do list, and it’s another dental care activity that little kids may need assistance with. Flossing properly removes bits of food from between the teeth to keep plaque from developing there. It is possible to get cavities on the sides of your teeth, so flossing is essential.
Rinsing your mouth with water or mouthwash can help remove the last bits of food after brushing. It’s also helpful if you have no brushing option at the moment. Your dentist may recommend a fluoride or antibiotic rinse if you have special dental needs.
Drinking plenty of water
Drinking water has tons of benefits, including advantages for your teeth. Staying hydrated helps promote more saliva production, which is a natural defense against plaque formation. When you substitute water for soft drinks or fruit juices, you further help your teeth. And if your tap water contains fluoride, as it does in many municipalities, it’s even better for your oral health.
Reducing consumption of sugary foods and drinks
As you learned above, foods and beverages with high sugar content put you at greater risk of cavities. Therefore, you want to seriously reduce your intake of these items. Replace these with water or fruits and vegetables. Even though fruits contain sugar in the form of fructose, many fruits naturally scrub the teeth when you eat them, so they’re not as bad as things like cake, cookies, ice cream, and candy.
Eliminate constant snacking and sipping
If you eat snacks and sip soda all day, you are exposing your teeth to plaque-inducing sugars for hours on end. This basically undoes your tooth brushing and makes you more vulnerable to cavities. Try to limit your snacking to once in the morning and once in the afternoon, brushing after if possible.
Avoid infant bedtime bottle feeding
Remember, feeding an infant milk or juice in a bottle at bedtime, especially if the child takes the bottle to bed, leaves too much sugar on the teeth overnight. Set a time limit for feeding well before bed, and start brushing their teeth early to establish a good habit. The same rules apply for toddlers drinking out of sippy cups.
Apply dental sealants
Sealants are most commonly applied to the teeth of school-age children. They are a thin coat of protection that adheres to the back teeth, the ones most likely to build plaque in their crannies and grooves. Sealants usually have a lifespan of several years.
Consider routine fluoride treatments
Dentists often recommend fluoride treatments when a patient doesn’t get enough tap water fluoride. People who only drink bottled water, for example, aren’t getting the same fluoride that the rest of their community do. Other people who get fluoride treatments are those who are at very high risk of tooth decay.
Chew gum containing xylitol
Chewing sugarless gum that contains xylitol helps encourage the production of saliva, which naturally removes excess sugars from the mouth. Additionally, enjoying a piece of sugarless gum after a meal when brushing is not available can help remove food particles from the teeth.
Treat acid reflux
There are several easy ways to treat acid reflux so stomach acid in the mouth doesn’t erode teeth. You should talk to your doctor if you think you have acid reflux (heartburn). Most likely, you will be given suggestions for over-the-counter medications to minimize acid production, as well as ideas for reducing acid-promoting foods in your diet.
See your dentist regularly
Visiting your dentist regularly for cleanings and exams is vital to prevent cavities. You can ask about special treatments, get a good deep cleaning of your teeth, and catch any tiny cavities before they grow and become much bigger problems.
Do You Think You Have a Cavity? Need a Checkup?
Do you suspect you might have a cavity? Ready for a checkup to have a look and make sure all is well with your teeth? If you’re in the Gainesville, GA area, call Brad Dixon, DMD at 770-535-1456, or use our easy dental appointments form online.
Do You Care About Your Teeth? Make Regular Dental Cleaning a Priority
We’re often asked if regular dental cleaning and check-ups are necessary for those who have good at-home oral hygiene habits. Our answer? Yes!
Regular dental cleanings are a must for those who wish to have good oral health. Not only do they help keep your teeth and gums healthy and free from plaque, tartar, and surface stains, but they also allow you to identify and prevent problems that might become more serious in the future.
Dental exams and cleanings are an important part of your preventative oral care routine. They should always be completed by licensed, registered, and fully-trained professionals like our team at Smiles By Dixon. Want to learn more about the importance of those bi-yearly visits? We’ll discuss everything you need to know below.
The Importance of Regular Dental Exams and Cleanings
Regular dental visits are essential, no matter how good your at-home oral care is.
We all eat and drink. And when that happens, particles of food get stuck to our teeth where bacteria begin to break them down into acids. While this process may be normal, it can cause two major issues. The first is plaque – a sticky biofilm that can harden into tartar if not removed promptly. The second issue is acid, which is produced by the bacteria living in plaque and can eat through your tooth enamel, causing cavities, decay, and other oral health issues. When plaque and tartar cover your teeth or gums, acid can collect underneath it and eat away at your tooth.
Dental professionals use special tools and materials to remove plaque and tartar, which helps to prevent gum disease, bad breath, cavities, receding gums, and other problems. Additionally, your dentists can examine your jaws, face, neck, and throat to identify issues such as oral cancer while they are still treatable.
Who Needs Regular Dental Cleaning Visits?
The short answer? Everyone! From children just breaking their first teeth to seniors who no longer have their natural teeth, regular dental visits are important throughout every stage of life.
Children. Introducing young children to dental visits early in life will help them become comfortable with the cleaning process and ensure that their baby teeth are healthy, correctly placed, and stay in long enough that their adult teeth have time to develop. It’s important to supplement professional dental visits with good at-home oral health care. You can help your child brush for the first few years of their life, schedule regular dentist appointments, and provide a good example of oral healthcare in your home.
Childhood is also one of the most effective ages for orthodontic treatments as the jaw is more malleable and teeth move more willingly. Your dentist can help determine if your child will need corrective treatments to keep their teeth straight and healthy.
Adults. Young and middle-aged adults should continue seeing the dentist at least twice a year as both a preventative and corrective measure. Now is the prime time to ensure your teeth are healthy so that you can keep your natural teeth for as long as possible.
Seniors. Visiting the dentist as a senior may seem unnecessary, especially if you no longer have your natural teeth. However, even patients with dentures or implants should continue to schedule and attend regular dental visits as bacteria can still build up under and along the gums, causing gum disease and other health issues. Older patients are also more at risk for oral cancer, a problem that your dentist should be able to identify during routine check-ups.
What Is Involved in Regular Dental Visits?
Regular dental visits consist of three elements: an examination, a cleaning, and oral-health education.
The Examination. During your dental exam, the dentist will check your mouth for cavities, gum disease, and other common oral health problems. This may be done with X-rays. Your examination should be very thorough, covering not only your teeth and gums but also your tongue, throat, and face.
The Cleaning. A trained and skilled dental hygienist will then proceed to clean your teeth. If needed, they will use special tools to scale or remove hardened tartar from your teeth. When this is done, they’ll clean and polish your teeth with a gritty toothpaste that will remove any surface stains. Then they'll complete the cleaning with thorough flossing to ensure all areas of your mouth are clean.
Education. One of the most important elements of your dental visits is learning how to take better care of your mouth. Don’t hesitate to ask your dentist any questions you may have; they’ll let you know what you need to focus on for a better, healthier smile.
Types of Tooth Cleaning
Most dental practices offer various types of tooth cleaning for different situations. Some of the most commonly offered types include:
- Prophylaxis teeth cleaning. Prophy cleaning is the most common type of tooth cleaning. This is for patients who generally take care of their oral health at home and, as a result, just need surface cleaning and polishing. Most insurances will cover prophy cleaning as a preventative treatment.
- Gingivitis treatment. Gingivitis is a form of gum disease that can be reversed with the proper treatment. These cleanings are intended to remove plaque build-up on your teeth and below your gums to keep it from getting worse.
- SRP treatment. SRP stands for scaling and root planing. It is a tooth cleaning treatment designed for patients with a more advanced form of gum disease than gingivitis. SRP usually involves removing tartar and plaque above and below the gum line. It may also require the use of antibiotics.
- Periodontal maintenance. If gum disease has been allowed to go untreated for a longer period of time, the patient will require active monitoring and repeated treatments to keep the disease from worsening. Treatments include cleaning both above and below the gum line. They will usually occur more often than traditional bi-yearly dental visits.
The Benefits of Regular Dental Cleanings
You may walk out of your dental visit with a smile that feels brand new, but tooth cleanings offer many more benefits besides just brightening your pearly whites. When you keep up with your regular dental cleanings and exams, you can enjoy benefits such as:
- Fewer oral health issues. Regularly removing plaque and tartar can reduce your risk for painful gum disease and tooth loss.
- A more confident smile. A whiter, brighter, and straighter smile can help improve your self-confidence.
- Increased oral safety. Attending regular check-ups offers a greater chance of successfully identifying dangerous diseases and other issues – such as oral cancer – while they are still treatable and before they become painful.
- Cost savings. Preventative dental care is almost always more affordable than corrective or restorative treatments. Many dental plans also cover all or most of the cost of your regular dental visits. This means you often pay very little for your check-ups and exams.
- Greater rapport with your dentist. Getting to know your dental provider and team can help reduce dental anxiety and make treatments and procedures less stressful.
- Better overall health. Your overall health is directly impacted by your oral health – keeping your mouth and teeth healthy is better for your overall well-being.
- Retaining your natural teeth for a longer time. Tooth loss becomes more common as we age, but it is less likely to happen to strong, healthy teeth that have been properly cared for throughout their life. Taking good care of your teeth doesn’t guarantee they’ll last forever, but it does make it likely that you’ll get to keep them around longer.
- Emergency prevention. Regular maintenance can help prevent emergencies such as damaged, injured, cracked, or chipped teeth.
Skipping Dental Cleanings? Here’s What Might Happen
There are many reasons that patients may decide to skip their annual dental cleanings. Some people suffer from debilitating dental anxiety that makes it impossible to get help even when they desperately need it. Others may feel like they don’t have the time or money to justify a visit to the dentist when nothing appears to be wrong with their teeth. Wondering what might happen if you decide to forgo your dental cleanings?
Unsightly stains and bad breath
Plaque and tartar build-up can be the cause behind chronic bad breath and dull teeth. Because tartar is impossible to remove without special tools, skipping your dental appointments will allow plaque and tartar to build up, causing a vast array of problems – the least of which is bad breath.
Cavities, gum disease, tooth loss, and more
Untreated plaque and tartar build-ups often result in cavities on and between your teeth, which occur when bacteria and acid eat through your tooth enamel. Cavities are often sensitive or painful because the inner part of your tooth – usually protected by the enamel – has been exposed. Even small cavities require professional treatment to prevent them from getting worse.
Gum disease is another issue commonly resulting from tartar build-up. It occurs when plaque and tartar begin to irritate the gum line. This first stage, known as gingivitis, is treatable. However, if it is allowed to continue, it can quickly become periodontal disease, a painful condition in which pockets form around your teeth and fill with bacteria, plaque, and other contaminants. Untreated gum disease can result in tooth and bone loss and other health issues – it’s far easier and less painful to just attend your bi-yearly check-up!
Oral cancer and decreased general health
Bad oral hygiene can negatively impact your overall health. This is no surprise as your mouth is the entryway into your body. While the evidence isn’t conclusive, there is strong reason to believe that bad oral health is directly connected to strokes, heart disease, and some cancers.
Oral cancer is one condition that general dental visits can help alleviate. Oral cancer is common in people over the age of 40, but it can be identified by your dentist during a regular dental exam. In its early stages, oral cancer is usually not painful and can be treated.
Many expectant mothers worry that a visit to the dentist will harm their unborn child. However, the opposite is actually true. Due to the increase of hormones during pregnancy, expecting mothers are more susceptible to gum disease, which can be spread to their child through the bloodstream and lead to complications during birth. Pregnant mothers must keep up with their regular dental cleanings, both for themselves and their child.
It’s important to understand that dental cleanings aren’t just about polishing your teeth. Their greater purpose is to ensure your teeth and gums are healthy so you don’t need to experience any pain or invasive corrective treatments. Dental cleanings are an effective and cost-efficient preventative tool that everyone should utilize! Even if you brush and floss regularly, there is no replacement for your regular dental cleanings and exams.
How to Achieve the Best Oral Health
We’ve pointed out how necessary regular dental cleanings are. But now we should mention that they offer the best results when paired with a comprehensive at-home oral care routine. At-home oral care doesn’t have to be time-consuming – just a few minutes a day can make all the difference. Here’s what you should be doing in between dental appointments.
- Brush your teeth twice a day. Use a smear of fluoride toothpaste, a soft-bristled toothbrush, and gentle circular motions.
- Floss daily using a c-shaped curve around the base of your tooth. Try to use dental floss rather than dental picks for the best clean.
- Use fluoride mouthwash to flush away any residual bacteria and to freshen your breath.
- Eat a well-balanced diet consisting of fresh, whole foods.
- Try to avoid sugary snacks and drinks, especially in between meals.
- Stop smoking to help prevent gum disease, oral cancer, yellowed teeth, and more.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated, avoid dry mouth, and clean your teeth.
Your Friendly Gainesville Dentist
When you make regular dental visits a priority and supplement them with good oral hygiene at home, you can avoid a variety of oral health issues including bad breath, tooth decay, gum disease, and cavities and gain more self-confidence in your smile.
It’s never too late to want a healthier smile! No matter how long it’s been since your last appointment, our team will always be happy to see you. Contact our office to schedule your dental exam and cleaning today.
Looking for more oral health care tips and information? Be sure to visit our blog where you’ll find plenty of professional advice about how best to care for your teeth.