Cavities 101: Clearing up the confusion about Cavities

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Cavities 101: Clearing up the confusion about Cavities

Remember when you were young and you were warned about “plaque bugs” and how if you don’t brush them away you’ll get cavities? Well for many of us that’s about all we learned about cavities. How they form, what are the different types and how they are filled may still be a mystery. If you don’t actually know what they are how can you avoid them? Read on to learn more as we clear up cavity confusion….

How do cavities form?

Mapping a cavity

It starts with the bacteria in our mouths. We all have many different types of bacteria in our mouths which can build up on the teeth in a sticky film called dental plaque. If we don’t remove this plaque through brushing after we eat and drink, these bacteria can create acids. When you eat foods that contain carbohydrates (sugars and starches-the most delicious and addictive of food groups), these carbohydrates are eaten by the bacteria in plaque, producing acids that eat into the tooth. Over time, the tooth enamel begins to break down beneath the surface. When enough of the sub-surface enamel is eaten away, the surface collapses, forming a cavity.

Decay begins in the main portion of the tooth (the enamel) and as the enamel is broken down the decay can go deeper into the dentin and can eventually reach the nerve (pulp) of the tooth.

Are there different types of cavities?

According to the Mayo clinic, the three types of cavities are:

  • Smooth surface cavities– these occur on the smooth sides of your teeth
  • Root cavities– these develop on the surface over the roots. These are more common as we age and gums recede leaving part of the root exposed to decay.
  • Pit and fissure cavities also known as coronal cavities are the most common type and occur on the chewing surface or between your teeth

Why am I more prone to getting cavities?

Some of us are more genetically predisposed to cavities. (You can read about it in our other post, “Why some people are more prone to getting cavities.”) There are other risk factors beside genetics. Adults are especially at risk for cavities if they suffer from dry mouth, a condition due to a lack of saliva, or if they have existing cavities. Decay can form around existing fillings and crowns. These areas may have a tendency to accumulate plaque, which can ultimately lead to decay.


How can I tell if I have a cavity?

You may experience tackiness when you bite down, as though your teeth are sticking together and you may also experience tooth sensitivity. This is because the cavity may affect the root of the tooth and the nerves attached to it. There are times when the cavity is small that you won’t have any symptoms. That’s why it’s important to get regular dental check-ups. Only your dentist can tell for sure whether you have a cavity. Your dentist can diagnose cavities by examining the tooth surface and by taking an x-ray to see if the cavity has gone from the enamel into the dentin or pulp of the tooth.

The best way to spot them and treat them before they become serious is by visiting your dentist regularly for checkups.

Can cavities lead to other health problems if left untreated?

Yes. If a cavity is left untreated, it can kill your tooth and the delicate nerves at its center, which may result in an abscess, an area of infection at the root tip. Once an abscess forms, it can only be treated with a root canal, surgery or by extracting the tooth. Serious consequences of an abscess may occur without warning. If someone is unaware of the infection it may spread to the blood, causing sepsis. This can result in death.

How Can I Help Prevent Cavities?

Colgate.ca lists the following practices to avoid cavities:

  • Brush at least twice a day and floss daily to remove plaque from between teeth and below the gum line
  • Have regular dental checkups. Preventive care can help stop problems from occurring and keep minor problems from becoming major ones
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that limits starchy or sugary foods. When you do eat these foods, try to eat them with your meal instead of as a snack to minimize the number of times your teeth are exposed to acid
  • Use dental products that contain fluoride, including toothpaste
  • See your hygienist regularly to remove plaque build up

If your dentist discovers a cavity and you require a filling a follow-up appointment will be made. Here’s what you can expect.

Get comfortable

Settle in the chair, put on your glasses (to protect from debris and the lights) and focus on the TV above you, or ask for music if that helps you.

Get Numb – A numbing gel will be applied to your gums and the dentist will wait a few minutes before injecting it, so all you will feel is a slight pinch.

Need a Needle – Anesthetic is administered through a needle. Thanks to the numbing gel, you shouldn’t feel any discomfort.  If you don’t like needles (who does?), close your eyes until this part is over.

Dam! – A rubber dam or cotton wad will be inserted to keep your tooth isolated and dry.

Clean up on aisle 5 – Your dentist will remove the decay. You may feel pressure, and the noise from the tools may interfere with your enjoyment of your show but it shouldn’t be painful.

Get your Fill – A composite filling to match to the colour of your teeth or a metal amalgam filling will be used. Discuss which you prefer ahead of time with your dentist. After placing the composite material onto your tooth, layers are built up, to match the natural shape of a tooth like sculpting. Bet you didn’t know dentistry was creative!

The Cure – An air gun will be used to clean and dry your tooth before using a blue light to ‘set’ and cure (harden) the filling.

Smooth Operator – Smoothing and filing is done to make the filling feel and look like a natural tooth.

This bites! To make sure the grooves of your new filling nestle snugly into the grooves of your other teeth, the dentist will use articulate paper to do a quick bite test.

You may want to adjust your set – On the off chance your filling feels off, the dentist might pop back in to make some adjustments with the polisher. This step might not be necessary.

There you have it, what causes cavities, types of cavities and the 411 on fillings. Remember to brush and floss regularly and if you suspect you have a cavity or are due for a check-up contact our office right away.