Tooth decay is a largely preventable disease, yet over one-quarter of adults in the U.S. have untreated cavities in their teeth. And many people, unless they visit a dentist regularly, may not even be aware they have tooth decay.
That's because early on a cavity really doesn't cause any noticeable symptoms or problems in your mouth. Sometimes decay develops in between teeth or underneath an old filling or crown, and you may never notice it. It usually isn't until it's left untreated and allowed to progress to the inner structure of a tooth that it begins to cause discomfort and pain.
There are four common signs that indicate the presence of tooth decay. Here's how to know if you have a cavity.
A cavity appears as a black or brown hole or pit in the tooth that doesn't go away, even with brushing. It may be the size of a pinhole when it first forms but can quickly grow larger if it's left untreated. You may even be able to feel it by running your tongue over it.
Sometimes staining can look similar to a very small cavity. Your dentist will be able to tell if a dark area on your tooth is simply a stain or decay that needs to be treated.
Any sensitivity that lingers after eating or drinking hot or cold foods could be a sign that you have a cavity. That's because your tooth's enamel—which acts as a barrier against temperature changes—has been penetrated by decay and is now exposing the dentin, which is the next layer inside a tooth.
Dentin contains microscopic tubes that travel to a tooth's inner pulp, where the nerves and blood supply reside. So the extreme temperatures may be more easily traveling to and irritating the tooth's nerves if a cavity is present.
A toothache is the most common sign of a cavity. The pain may come and go, may only occur when you bite down on the tooth, or suddenly come on spontaneously.
Toothache pain can become severe when the cavity reaches the tooth's pulp. When this happens, the bacteria irritate the tooth's nerves inside the pulp which then swells. There's no space inside the tooth for the swelling to go, so it causes great pain.
When a cavity has progressed to this point, a dentist will perform root canal treatment on the tooth to save it from extraction. This involves removing the decay as well as the infected pulp and the insides of the tooth's roots to ensure the affected tissue is completely removed. If the decay has progressed so much that there's not enough structure left of the tooth to do a root canal, it will have to be extracted.
If you're experiencing any kind of tooth pain or sensitivity, you definitely don't want to put off seeing a dentist. A tooth infection can spread via the bloodstream to other parts of the body, causing serious illness. In some cases, tooth decay has actually led to death.
A dental abscess, or a pus-filled pocket underneath the gums, is common when a tooth becomes infected from a cavity. It usually forms at the bottom of an infected tooth's root. An abscess is considered a dental emergency, and you should seek dental care right away if you develop one.
Your dentist may drain the abscess in addition to performing a root canal on the tooth. You may also be prescribed an antibiotic to ensure all of the infection goes away.
The good news is cavities are preventable and maintaining good oral care habits can help cut your risk of developing them. Here's how to take care of your teeth to keep decay away.
Brush your teeth at least twice a day, preferably after a meal, using a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Brush all surfaces of your teeth gently and thoroughly for no less than two minutes every time.
Flossing is just as important as brushing because it helps prevent cavities from forming in between teeth. Floss every day and be sure to hold the floss taught against the side of a tooth as you scrape it up and down to loosen and remove plaque.
Sugar is, of course, our smile's enemy number one as it provides food for the bacteria in our mouth to feed off of. But sticky and starchy foods—including some that we don't think of as sweet, such as chips and crackers—can wreak havoc on our teeth as well. Starchy food can linger for hours on tooth surfaces after eating them and can cause cavities.
Try to limit your intake of sugary and sticky foods such as candy, soda, baked goods, dried fruit, chips, and crackers. If you can't brush right away after consuming them, drink water or rinse your teeth with it to help remove some of the lingering food particles.
Seeing your dentist for regular check-ups and cleanings is the best way to catch cavities while they're small and not causing any pain or discomfort. Even if you think your at-home oral care habits are meticulous, only a dentist can confirm for sure that your smile is cavity-free.
Treating cavities while they're new prevents them from turning into bigger dental issues that may require a root canal, crown, or extraction. Your dentist and dental hygenist will also be able to tell if you're doing a good job cleaning your teeth and can provide pointers on how to properly brush and floss.
Eating a balanced diet is good for your oral health as well as your overall health, but did you know that some crunchy fruits and vegetables can help cleanse your teeth when you can't brush right away?
Apples, carrots, and celery help naturally scrub plaque from teeth and increase saliva flow, which helps neutralize harmful bacteria and acid in the mouth until you can brush. And chewing on a piece of hard cheese after meals has the same neutralizing effect. Plus, the calcium is good for your teeth.
If you're not experiencing any of these symptoms and you're wondering how to know if you have a cavity, you should visit a dentist for a check-up and cleaning. Don't wait until you're in pain before seeing a dentist.
We offer seven locations throughout the Raleigh area to make visiting the dentist convenient—and our compassionate, friendly staff will ensure a comfortable dental experience for you. View our locations and call the one closest to you to book your appointment.