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 how does it cause cavities?

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. This can also lead to tooth sensitivity or gingivitis, a mild form of gum disease, or more advanced gum disease if it’s left untreated.

In the beginning, tooth decay 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 lead to a tooth abscess. In more serious cases, the infection 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 symptoms at the beginning of a cavity. 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
    • Cavity pain may feel like an ache in your tooth that comes and goes randomly, or it may be a constant ache. For some, cavity pain may only be felt when eating or biting down
  • 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?

Depending on the size and location of the decay, cavities can look normal, whitish, chalky or black. But it can be difficult to see a cavity on your own at home. Usually, a dental exam and X-rays are needed to confirm if you have a cavity.

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 does a cavity 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.

Do cavities go away on their 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 do you treat a cavity?

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 cavity 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 cavity 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.

How to prevent cavities

The best way you can prevent cavities is by maintaining the health of your teeth. Here are a few things you can do to reduce your chance of tooth decay and cavities:

  • Regularly brush and floss your teeth: You’ve probably heard this time and time again. That’s because it’s the best way to remove plaque and debris from your teeth. Check out these tips to ensure you brush your teeth properly.
  • Use fluoride toothpaste and mouthwash: Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by making teeth more resistant to acids produced by plaque. It can also repair teeth in the early stages of tooth decay. Fluoride is added to many public water supplies, however most bottled water does not contain fluoride.
  • Watch what you eat: Foods that are high in carbohydrates and sugar, especially those that stick to your teeth after you eat them, are more likely to feed the bacteria in your mouth and cause tooth decay. Pop, ice cream, hard candies, chips, cereal and milk are just some of the foods to limit.
  • Reduce or eliminate use of tobacco: Smoking, using spit (smokeless) tobacco, or breathing secondhand smoke can increase your risk of tooth decay and gum disease, in addition to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and other medical issues.
  • Go to your regular dental checkups: Dental checkups and teeth cleanings are important for many reasons. You’ll get your teeth professionally cleaned, get screened for oral cancer, and be evaluated for evidence of cavities and tooth decay to catch problems early so you can get treated sooner. If tooth decay is caught early, you can sometimes avoid the need for a filling.
  • 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.