What Do Cavities Feel Like? (And How to Treat Them)

If you want to know what cavities feel like and what the best ways are to treat them, you’ve come to the right place.

Our teeth are extremely durable and strong, and meant to last an entire lifetime with the proper maintenance and care. However, sometimes issues develop that can weaken and erode the enamel that makes our teeth so strong. One of those problems are cavities. You’ve likely heard of cavities before, but if you’ve never had one, how do you know what a cavity feels like? And is there an effective way to treat them?

We’re going to cover those topics and more in this Aspen Dental guide, including:

  • What is a cavity? 
  • How you get a cavity
  • Who typically gets cavities
  • What do cavities feel like
  • How to treat a cavity
  • Can you prevent a cavity?
  • Are there additional conditions that develop because of cavities?

What are cavities?

Are cavities a big deal and should you be concerned about them?

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Cavities can happen to anyone, whether you’re young or old. 

Since you were young, chances are your dentist advised you to brush properly and floss daily in order to avoid cavities (also known as dental caries). But what exactly are they? Cavities are holes that develop in the tooth due to decay. When acid from the bacteria build-up in plaque eventually wear down the strong enamel of the tooth, a hole can develop. This is what we refer to as a cavity. 

If a cavity goes untreated, it can continue to expand, penetrating into the deeper layers of the tooth and eventually hitting the nerves of the root. Cavities are not something that will go away by themselves. They are a condition that you want to have looked at by a dental professional. 

Types of cavities

Not all cavities fall into the same category, and the longer a cavity goes untreated, the more serious the issue. In fact there are three main types of cavities:

  • Smooth surface cavity. Cavities can take years to develop, as it takes time for the acid from plaque bacteria to slowly eat away and weaken the outer enamel of your tooth. This type of cavity might be seen in adults, and looks like a small hole in the smooth surface of the tooth. 
  • Pit and fissure cavity. This type of cavity affects the chewing part of the back teeth, or on the chewing part of those molars. It’s easy for plaque to build up in the back part of your mouth, since this area is where most of the chewing and grinding is done when we eat. 
  • Interproximal decay. Food gets stuck between the back teeth and if not removed with brushing and floss, can develop into a cavity.
  • Root decay. Receding gums are more common in older adults, making them more susceptible to root decay from exposed gums. When the root of the tooth is exposed to acid, it can cause decay.

How do you get a cavity?

What causes cavities to form?

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Cavities typically develop because of plaque build up and bacteria, but other factors can be at play as well. 

There are different types of cavities that can affect diverse areas of the tooth, which means that they can be caused by a variety of factors. Cavities do not form overnight, and are the result of daily actions (or inactions) on your part. You can get a cavity based on:

  • The health of your teeth
  • Whole body health
  • The amount of saliva you produce
  • How much bacteria are in your mouth
  • The kinds of food you eat and the frequency of exposure
  • How you care for your teeth

So what causes cavities to form in the first place, and how do you know if your mouth is a cavity-friendly place? There is a process for that too, and while the other factors have a part to play, it depends largely on the types of food you eat and how you’re caring for your teeth and gums.

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If you have a diet that includes a lot of sugary or starchy foods and drinks, you may be creating a very cavity-friendly environment. These are the types of items that cause plaque to build up in your mouth. When plaque builds up, you also get an increase in the amount of bacteria in your mouth. These bacteria tend to feed on carbohydrates and sugars, as these types of foods are more easy for them to digest. 

On the other hand, bacteria tend to avoid foods such as vegetables and fruits since this type of food is harder for them to digest. After eating, the bacteria will have to get rid of their waste products, which is what dental professionals refer to as an acid attack. By constantly applying this acid to one place means that the bacteria is allowed to thrive unchecked. The substance that the bacteria excrete can cause damage to your teeth, and over time (when the cavity-friendly environment is left untreated), this is what develops into cavities.

As we mentioned earlier, cavities do not form overnight, and can take years to develop. This is why dentists stress the importance of ensuring you are properly caring for your teeth and gums on a daily basis. Once they start, it varies greatly how the rate at which they grow.

Who can get a cavity?

Is there an age where you’re more likely to get a cavity?

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No one wants a cavity, but they can happen at almost any age.

Our teeth are under constant attack from plaque build up and bacteria. This is why it’s so important to brush your teeth twice a day and floss at least once a day. Even though many people do all they can to ensure they’re maintaining proper oral hygiene, almost 80% of Americans have had a cavity by their 30s. A cavity can affect anyone, although children may be more likely to develop them, since they’re oral care habits have not been solidified yet.

Children are more likely to not brush properly, and tend to consume more sugary foods and drinks. Adults can also develop additional decay in the areas where they were treated for cavities as children. While the likelihood of getting cavities and decay decreases when you’re following your dentist’s instructions to care for your teeth, there are other factors that may increase your risk such as:

  • Certain medications such as antidepressants.
  • Receding gums in older adults can expose more of the tooth, leaving it open to possible acid attacks and cavities.
  • Dry mouth occurs when saliva production is not at its normal levels. Saliva is integral for keeping your mouth clean and reducing bacteria. Certain medications and medical procedures such as chemotherapy can result in a reduction in saliva, providing a cavity-friendly environment in your mouth. 
  • If you have heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease, stomach acid may also be contributing to the decay in your dental enamel. This can cause additional dentin to be exposed to the acid from your stomach, as well as that from the bacteria.
  • Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia can cause significant damage to your teeth, whether through stomach acid that deteriorates the enamel, or with a reduction in the amount of saliva produced in your mouth.
  • Family history can also have a role, and if you have a family history of cavities, both children and adults may be more susceptible to developing them.  

What do cavities feel like?

How do you know if you have a cavity, and what does it feel like to get one?

If you’re concerned about getting a cavity, it might be helpful to know what one feels like. While you can develop cavities based on a variety of factors, there are certain signs you should be aware of that indicate something might be wrong with your tooth. 

If you notice any of the following signs, it may be time to visit your dental health professional, as you could be dealing with a cavity.

Pain/sensitivity in your teeth or gums

If you start to notice that you’re developing a painful sensation when you eat or chew, this could be what a cavity feels like. When your enamel has started to wear down and dissolve due to the acid from bacteria, it exposes areas of the tooth. When those areas are no longer protected, they can become very sensitive to hot, cold, acidic or even sugary food and drinks. 

You may also notice an increased amount of pain when you chew or bite down on food. Do not ignore this type of pain or sensitivity because it could be the warning sign of a cavity. If you find yourself chewing on one side of your mouth to avoid this type of pain, it’s probably time to visit your dentist.

Holes in your tooth

One of the tell-tale signs of a cavity is the hole itself. Over time, the acid from bacteria will cause the enamel to disappear, leaving a hold behind. You may be able to feel this indent in your tooth when you run your tongue over it. If something feels rough, or feels different on one of your teeth, it could be a cavity. Depending on its size, the cavity may even be visible when you look at your teeth.

Holes can develop on top of the tooth where the chewing is performed, or they can occur on the sides or front of the tooth. This depends on what area the plaque is concentrated in. If left untreated, the hole will continue to get bigger and eventually reach the inner part of your tooth. 

Stains on your teeth

If you’ve noticed some new discoloration on certain areas of your teeth, you may want to consult with your dentist. Cavities can start to form on your tooth and appear like a white stain, however, over time it will develop into a brown or even black mark on your tooth. As the enamel is dissolved, the stain will become darker and bigger, evidence that a cavity is growing.

Bad breath

While bad breath can be caused by a variety of factors, a common culprit is the breakdown of food particles that bacteria feed on. If you’ve been practicing good oral hygiene, but still have bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth, you’ll want to schedule a time to speak to your dentist. At your visit, they can determine what is causing your bad breath, and let you know if it is the formation of a cavity.

Bleeding gums

Bleeding gums are one of the first signs of gingivitis and gum disease. If you’ve found that your gums are very sensitive, look swollen, or you’ve noticed pink on your toothbrush, you could be dealing not only with the start of gum disease, but increased risk of developing cavities too. 

Toothache and facial swelling

A cavity that has gone untreated has had the opportunity to get deep into the tooth. If it has caused the hard enamel of your tooth to dissolve and reach the dentin or the pulp, chances are you might be in some pain and notice your face is swelling. Toothaches and swelling are a sign that something is wrong, and it may be a cavity causing it. If you have a throbbing sensation in one area of your mouth, or the pain doesn’t seem to subside, this type of toothache could be the result of a cavity.

Redness in your mouth

Along with bleeding gums, if your gums or the inside of your cheeks appear red and inflamed, this could be signs of gum disease and cavities. You’ll know when your gums are inflamed because they will appear red. Normal, healthy gums are pink and hard to the touch. When there is something wrong, your gums will appear red, look swollen, and be very sensitive to the touch. 

How do you treat a cavity?

Learn what your dentist can do to help treat a cavity

If you’ve noticed any of the warning signs above, you may be dealing with a cavity. If you cannot see your dentist right away, there are still things you can do to help alleviate some of the pain until you can get to the dentist’s office.

  • Rinse the area with warm water 
  • Use a dab of clove oil to help reduce the inflammation
  • Use a toothpaste for sensitive teeth
  • Take an over the counter painkiller to help with the toothache until you can see your dentist

When you arrive at your dentist’s office, they’ll investigate and determine whether or not you have a cavity. If you do, and depending on what type it is, there are a couple of different ways they can treat it.

Fluoride treatments

If your cavity is in its early stages, your dentist may be able to help you out with fluoride treatments. Through a process called remineralization your dentist can use the fluoride treatment to help repair the damage done by the acid from the bacteria. This can hopefully start to refill any damaged or decayed parts of the tooth and repair the tooth enamel, bringing back its strength and durability. 

In addition to in-office treatments, your dentist may also prescribe a specific toothpaste and/or mouthwash to use. 

Fillings

If your cavity needs more than just a fluoride treatment because it has developed into a hole in your enamel, your dentist will then use a filling. Fillings are an easy way to fill the hole in your tooth caused by acid. Typically they are made of silver amalgam, gold or resin. Because the cavity was still caught relatively early, fillings are a quick and common procedure that can repair the damage of a cavity. There are typically no symptoms with cavities when they are still treatable with fillings

Root canals

If your cavity has gone past the enamel and the dentin and reached the pulp, you are probably dealing with a painful tooth. However, it is fairly common that a tooth needs a root canal before it becomes painful. This will allow all of the affected tooth structure to be removed without causing the nerve pain.

If this is the case, your dentist will do a root canal to treat the pain caused by decay in this area of the tooth. Typically a specialist known as an endodontist or general dentist will remove the pulp that has been affected by the decay, and which is causing you pain. 

After it is removed, the decaying process should stop. Your general dentist may choose to put a crown on a tooth that has had a root canal to further protect it. This ensures that the tooth can go back to functioning as normal with everyday chewing and biting. 

Extraction of your tooth

If your cavity has reached the late stages and it is not possible to do a root canal, your dentist may decide that removing the tooth is the best option. When a cavity goes unchecked for a long time, tooth extraction is sometimes the only available option. Once your tooth is removed, you can discuss with your dentist whether to replace it with an implant, a bridge, or a denture. 

You don’t want to leave a gap in your teeth after your tooth is extracted, as this can cause tooth misalignment and the recession of your jaw bone.

Can you prevent cavities?

What can you do to prevent cavities?

While cavities can be a lot of trouble, there are things you can do to prevent them. Although cavities can happen to anyone, it’s something that you’d like to avoid if possible. In order to prevent a cavity from happening, follow these tips.

  • Practice good oral hygiene. One of the easiest ways to prevent a cavity is to ensure you’re practicing good oral hygiene. This means brushing for two minutes twice a day and flossing at least once a day. You may even consider brushing your teeth after meals as well. After brushing, be sure to rinse your mouth out with an ADA approved mouthwash. 
  • Visit your dentist. Home oral hygiene isn’t enough to ensure you’re doing all you can to prevent cavities. Visiting your dentist at least twice a year for a professional cleaning and checkup is crucial to early detection of decay or cavities. A professional cleaning ensures tartar are removed, and any potential issues are addressed early. 
  • Dental sealants. Because children can be more likely to develop cavities since they may not brush their teeth properly and enjoy more sugary foods/beverages, dental sealants might be a good idea. This is a protective coating placed on the top chewing surfaces of the molars in the back of the mouth. This is the area where food particles tend to get stuck and end up causing cavities. 

Although they need to be replaced after a few years, dental sealants can do a lot to prevent cavities from forming. 

  • Tap water. Tap water is treated with fluoride, which helps to strengthen and protect teeth. Fluoride has been proven to decrease the occurrence of tooth decay, so if you’re only drinking bottled or filtered water, consider adding in some tap water too. 
  • Eat healthy food. Earlier we mentioned that bacteria like to eat sugary and starchy food debris because it is easier to digest. By avoiding this kind of food and instead eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you’re making it harder for bacteria to thrive in your mouth. Healthy foods also promote the flow of saliva, keeping bacteria away. Not only is healthy eating good for your body, it’s good for your mouth too.
  • Avoid frequent snacking/drinking. Try to limit your snack and drinking (other than water) throughout the day. Each time you eat or drink, you could be allowing the bacteria to feed and produce acid that causes cavities. 
  • Fluoride treatments. Although this can be used in the early treatment of a cavity, it can also be used as a preventative measure. If you’re not getting a good amount of fluoride through tap water, your dentist may recommend a fluoride treatment to help protect your teeth.
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What complications can develop because of cavities?

Cavities are nothing to ignore, and if you’re starting to feel one of the signs of a cavity, make an appointment with your dentist. Your oral health is tied to your overall health, and if cavities are left unchecked, they can develop into painful problems that interfere with daily life. Tooth decay can lead to serious infection that can spread to other parts of your body.

Make sure you’re following the advice of your dentist and do all you can to prevent cavities from developing. By seeing your dentist regularly for checkups, you can deal with any cavities that might develop early.

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