You take care of your teeth. You’re brushing them. You’re flossing (sometimes, at least). You might be having regular dental checkups and cleanings, too.

But tooth decay is one of the most common health issues in the world. So if you’re noticing any new sensitivity or pain in your teeth, you might be wondering if you’re experiencing tooth decay – or more specifically, a cavity.

Read on to learn why cavities happen, symptoms to watch for, what treatment involves and more.

First, what is tooth decay and what causes it?

Tooth decay is caused by bacteria that live in plaque – a sticky substance that is constantly forming on your teeth and gums. These bacteria feed on the sugar in our food and drinks, and they produce acid that can start to cause damage.

In the beginning, damage is limited to the outer surface of the tooth. But if left unchecked, it can progress and cause a hole in your tooth – a cavity. If this continues, it can get into the nerve of the tooth and cause an infection in your bone, which can spread to other parts of your body.

What is a cavity

A cavity is tooth decay that causes a hole in a tooth. Tooth decay is a process, and a cavity – as most people refer to it – is just one part of the process where there is visible damage to the tooth.

What are the signs of a cavity?

In many cases, people don’t experience any cavity symptoms early on. As the decay gets larger or closer to the nerve of the tooth, the likelihood of symptoms increases. When people do start to experience symptoms of a cavity, those can include:

  • Toothache
  • Pain when biting down
  • Random tooth pain
  • Sensitivity to heat, cold or sweetness
  • Bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth that doesn’t go away with brushing or flossing
  • Sudden difficulty flossing between teeth
  • Food getting caught in an area it never did before

What do cavities look like?

Cavities are often difficult to diagnose without X-rays or a dental exam. Depending on the size and location of the decay, it can look normal, whitish, chalky or black. There are three types of cavities, based on where they form:

  • Smooth surface cavities form on the sides of teeth.
  • Pit and fissure cavities form on the chewing surfaces of teeth.
  • Root cavities form on the roots of your teeth.

What do cavities feel like?

In addition to discomfort or pain, it’s sometimes possible to feel a cavity with your tongue. It may feel like an unusual rough patch, or a slight sharpness around the edge of the hole.

    

Can a cavity go away on its own?

Unfortunately, no. If tooth decay is caught early, you may be able to stop and reverse damage by adjusting your oral hygiene habits, changing your diet and using a mouthwash with fluoride. But once the decay has gone past the outer layer of the tooth (enamel) or on your root surface, other treatments will be necessary to fix it.

How long can you leave a cavity untreated?

Any time you have a cavity or think you have a cavity, it’s best to be seen by a dentist as soon as possible. The longer tooth decay is left untreated, the more serious the problem can get. This can cause a tooth abscess, a lot of pain and more aggressive, costly treatments.

How are cavities treated?

As we mentioned above, the beginning stages of decay can be reversed with good oral hygiene and diet, and the use of fluoride. But in later stages, a dental procedure is needed to stop the decay from progressing. The type of treatment depends on how far the tooth decay has spread.

  • Filling – A tooth with limited damage that doesn’t put the tooth at risk for fracture, can be treated with a cavity filling. There are different types of filling materials and the one chosen for your procedure will depend on your specific situation.
  • Crown – When a tooth is at a high risk of fracture, you may need a crown. A crown is a covering for the tooth that helps direct the biting forces toward the stronger root structure, rather than the part of the tooth damaged by decay. Crowns can be made from a variety of materials and are chosen based on your specific situation.
  • Root canal therapy – When the decay has reached the nerve (or pulp) of the tooth, the nerve begins to die and get infected, and needs to be removed. The canal within the root where the nerve was is then filled with a rubber-type material to seal the tooth off from the rest of the body. Teeth that require root canal therapy often need a crown, too. This is because a large amount of the tooth structure is missing.
  • Extraction – A tooth may be extracted, or pulled, if it’s too damaged to benefit from other treatments. An extracted tooth can be replaced with a bridge, dental implant or denture. Not all teeth need to be replaced, depending on where they are located.

Tips for temporary tooth pain relief

If you need to manage pain or swelling until you can see a dentist, one or more of the following methods may help:

  • Apply a cloth-wrapped ice pack to the outside of your mouth for 10-15 minutes a few times a day.
  • If you can, take ibuprofen (Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) together. Both medicines work differently but can work well together to manage pain. Contact your dentist or physician for the proper dose for you to take.
  • Rinse your mouth with saltwater to reduce inflammation and bacteria.
  • Avoid very hot, cold or sweet foods and beverages.

Think you have a cavity? Make a dental appointment right away

If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of a cavity or any tooth pain, we strongly recommend you see a dentist near you as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the worse your tooth issue may get.

And to help avoid future dental issues, make preventive dental care a priority. On top of brushing and flossing, dental checkups are a key part of keeping your teeth healthy. They help catch and treat issues early before they become more serious.