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Diseases & Conditions A - Z
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Dental Cavities

What Are Dental Cavities?

Dental cavities are permanently damaged areas that often develop into holes in the enamel, or hard outer surface, of your teeth. Cavities are also known as tooth decay or caries. Anyone with teeth can get a cavity, but they are most common in small children and young adults. There are three types of cavity:

  • smooth surface cavities, which appear on the sides of your teeth
  • pit and fissure cavities, which appear on the bumpy surface on the top of your tooth that is used for chewing
  • root cavities, which appear over the roots of your teeth, below the gumline

How Will I Know if I Have a Cavity?

The symptoms of a dental cavity will depend on the type of cavity and the severity of decay. When a cavity first develops, it’s likely that you won’t even know it’s there.

When a cavity gets larger, you may experience:

  • toothache
  • sensitivity to heat, cold, and sweets
  • pain when biting down
  • visible holes or black spots on teeth

Regular dental exams (about every six months) can help catch any problems early on. Finding a dental cavity before it starts causing you pain can help you avoid extensive damage and possible tooth loss. If you start feeling pain and aching in your mouth, see your dentist as soon as possible.

How Do Cavities Develop?

The cause of a cavity is tooth decay. The hard surface, or enamel, of your tooth can become damaged over time. Bacteria, food particles, and naturally occurring acids form a sticky film called plaque that coats your teeth. The acid in plaque eventually starts to eat away at your enamel. Once the acid eats through your enamel, dentin is next. Dentin is the second, softer layer of your teeth that is more easily damaged.

If your tooth decay continues without treatment, the pulp (inside) of your tooth may be affected. The pulp of your tooth houses blood vessels and nerves. When decay spreads to the pulp, it can cause nerve damage, resulting in pain, irritation, and swelling. In cases of advanced tooth decay, pus may form around the tooth as the immune system attempts to fight the decay–causing bacteria.

How Can I Relieve My Symptoms?

Treatment of your dental cavity will depend on how severe your tooth decay is.

Fillings and Crowns

Your dentist may use a filling to repair the hole in your tooth. Fillings can be made of a variety of materials, including metal and porcelain. During a filling, your dentist removes the decayed portion of your tooth using a drill and fills the hole with the chosen material. Crowns are used if a large amount of the tooth needs to be removed. Crowns are custom made and usually cover the entire top surface of the tooth.

Root Canals and Extractions

Once the decay reaches the inside of your tooth, a root canal may be necessary. Root canals involve removing the damaged nerve of your tooth and replacing it with a filling. Contrary to popular belief, root canals aren’t generally any more painful than regular fillings. (AAE)

An extraction, or tooth removal, is performed if your tooth is beyond repair. Your dentist can surgically remove your tooth and replace it with a false one, if you desire.


Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that can strengthen tooth enamel and make teeth more resistant to decay caused by acids and bacteria. Fluoride treatments can also reverse early signs of tooth decay.

What Can I Do to Keep Cavities From Forming?

Taking good care of your teeth is the best way to prevent cavities. Great cavity prevention starts at home, but regular dental checkups are necessary as well. Follow these tips for good oral hygiene to prevent cavities:

  • Use toothpaste that contains fluoride. Fluoride can stop and even reverse tooth decay, making it a powerful weapon in the fight against cavities.
  • Brush your teeth at least twice per day, once in the morning and once before bed. If you can, brush your teeth after meals as well.
  • Floss between your teeth daily to remove food particles and prevent plaque buildup.
  • Avoid frequent snacking and limit the amount of sweet, sticky foods you eat. Snacking can create a near-constant supply of tooth decay-causing acid in your mouth, and sugary, carbonated foods and beverages can damage enamel. If you do snack, rinse your mouth with an unsweetened beverage afterward to help remove food particles and bacteria from your mouth.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Carmella Wint
Published on: Jul 12, 2012
Medically reviewed : George Krucik, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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