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Cavities/Tooth Decay: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Tooth Cavities

Symptoms | Causes | Treatment | Complications | Prevention | Q&A

What are cavities?

A cavity, also called tooth decay, is a hole that forms in your tooth from bacteria. Cavities start small and gradually become bigger when they’re left untreated. Because 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

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

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

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 death to the nerves in your tooth, 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 then checks for infections and applies medication to the roots as needed. Finally, they fill the tooth, and they often need to place a crown on it.

Early-stage treatment

If your dentist detects a tooth cavity in its early stage, a silver diamine 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

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 that 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

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 Canadian Dental Association.
  • Eat fewer sugary and acidic foods, like sweets, candy, juice, soda, and refined carbohydrates.
  • Limit snacking between meals.
  • Consider getting dental sealants on your teeth.
  • Using an anti-cavity fluoride rinse and Cario toothpaste

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 dental hygienist as recommended for regular teeth cleanings. This allows you to get treatment for any problems your dentist finds, and it will help prevent future dental problems.

Common Questions & Answers about Tooth Decay

Can you reverse tooth decay?

Tooth decay can be stopped or reversed if a cavity is in its early stages. Enamel can repair itself by using minerals from saliva, and fluoride from toothpaste or other sources. But if the tooth decay process continues, more minerals are lost. A cavity is permanent damage that a dentist has to repair with a filling.

How does tooth decay occur?

Tooth decay occurs when foods containing carbohydrates (sugars and starches), such as breads, cereals, milk, soda, fruits, cakes, or candy are left on the teeth. The acids in plaque dissolve the enamel surface of the teeth, creating holes in the teeth called cavities.

How is tooth decay treated?

Treatment options include silver diamine fluoride treatments. If your cavity just started, an SDF treatment may help restore your tooth’s enamel and can sometimes reverse a cavity in the very early stages. Professional fluoride treatments also help because they contain more fluoride than the amount found in tap water, toothpaste and mouth rinses.

What does tooth decay look like?

“If the decay gets large enough, part of the tooth may fracture off, leaving a large visible hole, and the tooth may be sensitive to biting pressure. Cavities on the front teeth are the easiest to see and will look like a brown or black spot. Cavities in other parts of the mouth are often not visible without an X-ray.

Trusted Sources and Other Resources

Cavities/tooth decay – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic

Tooth Decay – American Dental Association – MouthHealthy

Tooth Decay Prevention: 8 Daily Dental Care Tips – WebMD

The Tooth Decay Process: How to Reverse It and Avoid a Cavity

Cavities and Tooth Decay: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment – Crest

Stages of Tooth Decay – Oral-B


When in doubt, check it out

If you’re unsure of your health status, have multiple health problems or are pregnant, speak with your doctor before starting a new dental procedure. Working with your doctor ahead of time can help you plan the medical/dental treatment that’s right for you. And that’s a good first step on your path to oral health.

Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition. Never disregard or delay seeking professional medical advice or treatment because of something you have read on the Sherwood Dental website.

Reviewed By:

Dr. Rakesh Patel B.Sc., DDS on April 1, 2020