Why Do Cavities Hurt and How Can I Prevent Them?

Everything you need to know about cavities, how they form, treatment plans, and prevention tips in one place.

Cavities are something that most people will experience at some point in their life. But, with the proper prevention and early treatment, you can avoid cavities that cause extreme pain and discomfort. 

It all starts with knowing what causes cavities and understanding the proper steps to prevent tooth decay from forming in the first place. In this article, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know about cavities, from how to spot and treat them to things you can do to prevent and protect your teeth in the future. 

Here’s an overview of the topics that will be covered: 

  • What causes cavities? 
  • How to tell if you have a cavity? 
  • Why do cavities hurt? 
  • How to relieve pain from a cavity
  • When to contact your dentist 
  • Treatment options for cavities 
  • What increases the risk of getting a cavity?
  • How to prevent future cavities 

What causes cavities? 

Cavities are caused by tooth decay. Tooth decay is a disease that damages and breaks down your teeth over time due to the presence of bacteria and plaque. 

Many of the foods and drinks you consume daily are turned into acids that can break down your tooth's enamel. Once your enamel has been compromised, and tooth decay has reached the inside of the tooth, it has officially become a cavity. 

If your diet consists of foods that are high in sugar contents or frequently consume sugary drinks, you could be putting yourself at risk for a cavity. This is because you’re exposing your mouth to higher levels of sugar that will cause more acid resulting in faster deterioration of the enamel. 

Having a poor dental hygiene routine may also be another reason you’re experiencing cavities. Brushing your teeth at least twice daily helps remove any plaque or bacteria that has built up in your mouth before it can cause any decay. 

How to tell if you have a cavity? 

Several different signs may indicate that you have a cavity.

Some common symptoms are mild and may not immediately alert you that something is wrong, such as sensitivity to temperatures or slight pain when biting. While others will be undeniable indicators that you have a cavity like holes and dark spots on your teeth. 

It’s essential to pay attention to any unusual changes happening in your mouth so you can proactively address the problem before it becomes too severe. Let’s take a closer look at some of these common signs and symptoms that may indicate you have a cavity. 

Tooth pain

One of the most common symptom of a cavity is tooth pain. 

When a cavity first forms, this pain may only be noticeable when biting down or chewing something hard. As the decay begins to spread and the cavity becomes more prominent and more serious, the pain you feel may become more severe and happen at any time.

If you’re experiencing tooth pain, it’s always a good idea to contact your dental provider and have them take a look at what’s going on—ignoring the early signs of cavities, such as pain when biting, can cause the decay to progress and the tooth to break or crack. 

Holes in your teeth

Another common indicator that a cavity has formed on your tooth is if there is a visible hole. These types of cavities are generally further along and will require your dentist to fill to protect the tooth from any additional damage. 

 tooth with a whole in the middle
A hole in your tooth is a good indication that you likely have a cavity. If you can see or feel a hole, it’s time to contact your dentist and have them take a closer look to determine what treatment plan is best for your needs. http://www.bellodentals.com/blog/small-black-point-on-my-teeth-what-is-it

A visible hole in the tooth means that the tooth is exposed and will continue to decay if not treated properly. For these types of cavities, your dentist will need to determine how much decay has occurred within the tooth and then recommend a treatment plan that may include a filling, root canal, or even extraction of the infected tooth.

If you notice a visible hole in your tooth, you will want to contact your dental provider to have the issue addressed right away. 

Tooth sensitivity

Sensitivity is another common symptom that occurs when a cavity has formed. 

As bacteria starts to wear down your enamel, you’ll notice that your teeth are more sensitive to things than they previously were. Generally, this is noticed when eating or drinking something hot or cold. 

Frequent sensitivity can signify a cavity that has been around for some time but has not decayed enough to cause extreme pain or discomfort. 

While sensitivity isn’t always a sign of a cavity, if it occurs over an extended period of time and doesn’t seem to go away on its own, you’ll want to contact your dentist to see what’s causing the problem. 

Dark spots on your tooth

Like when you spot a hole in your tooth, if you notice dark spots forming, it could indicate a cavity. Dark spots are usually a sign that the cavity has been forming for quite some time, and decay has made its way into the tooth's enamel. 

tooth with a cavity in it
Another common sign that you may have a cavity is a dark spot on your tooth. These spots cannot be removed and are signs of decay happening in the tooth. https://dentistryon7.com/cavities/

Dark spots are usually small back, brown, or gray spots on the tooth, and you cannot simply brush these spots away due to tooth decay. A trip to visit your dentist will be required, and they will likely recommend that you have a filling or crown place to address the cavity.

Why do cavities hurt?

Cavities can be very uncomfortable and, if left untreated for too long, become a serious problem – but why exactly do cavities hurt? 

As your tooth’s enamel weakens and bacteria and decay start to infiltrate the deeper layers of your teeth, your nerves can become infected. The damage that occurs deep within the tooth and attacks the nerves causes the pain that comes with a cavity. 

The level of pain you feel when a cavity has formed will depend on how deep the bacteria and decay have gone. It may be a subtle discomfort that occurs periodically in the early stages, but that pain will continue to grow stronger as the tooth becomes more and more compromised. More times than not people experience no pain until the cavity has reached the pulp.

Eventually, you may be left in extreme pain due to the damage to the tooth's nerve. In some cases, when left untreated, cavities can also affect the gums and cause other serious infections. 

How to relieve pain from a cavity

When you’re experiencing pain from a cavity, you may be looking for some immediate relief. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help ease the pain while you wait to get in to see your dentist for a more permanent solution. 

Here are a few ways to help relieve your cavity pain

  • Use warm salt water to rinse your mouth, kill bacteria, and help temporarily ease your pain
  • Some over-the-counter medications may help to ease the pain you’re experiencing 
  • Apply dental numbing gel to the area for temporary relief 
  • Alternating hot and cold packs on the outside of the mouth may also help ease the pain

Whatever route you decide to go to provide yourself with temporary relief from your cavity pain, make sure to talk with your dentist to ensure it’s the correct route for your needs. It’s also important to schedule an appointment with them as soon as possible to address the problem head-on. 

When to contact your dentist 

As soon as you suspect you have a cavity, it’s best to give your dentist a call and see when they can fit you in. The sooner you address the problem. The less the tooth decay can spread and the less pain you’ll experience, the treatment is less costly, and it is an easier procedure the sooner you address cavities. 

find an office call to action

If you start to notice more advanced symptoms such as fever, headache, swelling in the face or behind the ears, or severe pain, you should take these symptoms seriously, and immediate action should be taken. These could be indicators of a more severe infection that may have spread to other areas of the body. 

Treatment options for cavities 

The chances are good that at some point in your life, you’ll have at least one or two cavities. 

Luckily, depending on the severity of the cavity, the doctor will prescribe a treatment plan to address the concern. Determining which treatment option is best for you will depend on how far the cavity has progressed and the level of decay. 

images of healthy tooth, early decayed tooth, and advanced decay
Depending on how advanced tooth decay is, your dentist may suggest several different treatment plans. Your treatment plan may range from a simple fluoride treatment to address cavities in the very early stages, to tooth extraction for advanced decay. https://www.devasyahospital.com/our-specialties/dental/tooth-cavities/

A visit to your dental provider will be needed to determine how far the tooth decay has progressed and choose the right treatment plan for your needs. But let’s take a look at a few of the treatment options your dentist may recommend. 

Fluoride treatments

Fluoride treatments are an option for when a cavity is in its very early stages. 

Fluoride is a mineral that helps restore the tooth’s enamel, which makes the tooth stronger and can reverse tooth decay and cavities in their early stages. Your dentist can apply fluoride treatments to your teeth in the form of a liquid, gel, foam, or varnish. 


If your cavity has progressed to affect the structure beyond the outer layer of enamel and needs more attention, then it’s very likely your dentist will use a filling to treat the cavity. 

image of a tooth decay, removal of tooth decay and filled tooth
Your dentist will need to remove the tooth decay and fill the hole to treat a cavity. This is a very common treatment option that will clean the tooth out and address the symptoms you may be experiencing. https://buckheaddentistry.com/signs-need-tooth-filling/

Your dentist will drill into the tooth to remove the decay-causing bacteria to apply a filling. Once it has been cleared out, they will fill the tooth with a form of resin to protect it from future decay. 


A crown may be the best treatment option for cavities with extensive decay. A crown is a custom covering that covers your natural tooth to help strengthen the area and provide a natural tooth-like replacement. 

crown placement diagrams

Crowns are another treatment option to address cavities. These are often used when the decay has become more severe, and the dentist needs to clear away more of the tooth. The crown is then placed on the damaged tooth and looks, feels, and acts like a natural tooth. 

Your dentist will drill the decaying area of the tooth down and any other additional surface necessary for the crown to fit. The crown will then be placed over the remaining tooth to prevent further damage. 

Root canals

In some cases, cavities can become severe enough to require a root canal. This treatment is used when the tooth decay has worked its way deep into the tooth and has reached or neared the pulp of your tooth.

If your cavity has extensive decay, then a root canal may be the treatment plan your dentist recommends. This is a much more costly treatment option but will help preserve the natural tooth. https://www.johnsonfamilydentistry.com/need-root-canal/

Your dentist will drill into the tooth and remove any infected or decaying tooth pulp when you have a root canal. Once the area is cleaned, they will place a filling or crown over the area to seal it and provide further protection. 

Root canals are an excellent treatment option for severely damaged teeth and can prevent you from having the tooth extracted. 

Tooth extraction

If a cavity has become so severely damaged, then having the tooth extracted may be your only treatment option.

tooth extraction diagram with pliers pulling tooth out
In some cases, the tooth decay may simply be too much to treat. Your dentist will recommend extracting the tooth and replacing it with a bridge, denture, or implant when this happens. 

Your dentist can advise you on whether or not having the tooth extracted is the best option for you. They will likely recommend that you have the tooth extracted and then put a bridge or dental implant to replace the tooth and prevent movement of other teeth. 

What increases the risk of getting a cavity? 

Several things can increase the risk of getting a cavity. From avoiding certain foods and brushing regularly to knowing what teeth are at a higher risk and getting enough fluoride – it all plays into the health of your teeth. 

Knowing what some of the common risk factors are will allow you to make smart choices and protect your teeth. Let’s take a closer look at a few things that could be increasing your risk of getting a cavity. 

Location of the tooth

Your molars and premolars are the teeth that are most susceptible to cavities. 

upper and lower teeth diagram with labels on each of the teeth
Some teeth are more susceptible to cavities than others. The teeth in the back of your mouth, known as your molars, have more nooks and crannies that bacteria can nestle into. They’re harder to clean and are often where cavities appear. https://summitdentalhealth.net/the-different-types-of-teeth/

This is because they have a lot of different grooves and crannies that can be harder to clean and that bacteria can latch on to. Over time, you may miss certain spots when brushing, allowing that bacteria to continue to fester and eventually start to cause decay. 

While the molars are the most common teeth that cavities form on, any tooth in your mouth could be affected by tooth decay. So don’t forget to take care and continue to clean all of your teeth, both front and back. 

Poor dental hygiene 

Skipping your daily brushing and flossing together can be a huge risk factor when it comes to cavities. 

You need to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss at least once to keep bacteria and plaque under control. These are the best preventative actions you can take to keep your teeth as healthy as possible for as long as possible. 

Common foods and drinks

Sugary foods and drinks can increase your risk of getting a cavity. 

foods that cause plaque and images of pretzels, sugary candy and chips
Snacks and sugary foods like candy and pretzels are some of the leading causes of cavities. That’s because they help fuel the bacteria that grows in your mouth, which damages your enamel and eventually leads to tooth decay. 

These foods promote bacteria build-up and are not as easily washed away by your saliva. Avoid eating things like ice cream, honey, sugar, soda, cake, and cookies to decrease the risk of cavities forming. 

Lack of fluoride

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that helps restore your tooth’s enamel and protect against decay. It can also help reverse damaged enamel during the early stages to prevent cavities from forming. 

Not having enough fluoride can cause your teeth to decay quicker and lower the defenses the enamel provides. There are many ways to add fluoride into your daily routine, including drinking tap water and using oral hygiene products that contain it, such as toothpaste and mouthwashes. 

Dry mouth 

Saliva is essential for washing away food and plaque from your teeth. If you experience dry mouth regularly, you're not actively washing away the bacteria and particles that can cause decay. 

How to prevent future cavities

Prevention is the best option when it comes to cavities. By actively working to keep your mouth as healthy as possible and avoiding certain things that may put you at a higher risk of developing a cavity, you can lessen your chances of having one. 

Beyond avoiding sugary foods and eating a healthier diet, there are a few cavity prevention steps you’ll want to take to keep your teeth healthy and decay-free. 

Proper dental hygiene 

Making the right decision each day with your dental hygiene is one of the most effective ways to prevent cavities. Your dental hygiene should be a top priority and something you do every day without hesitation. 

drawings of toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, and a tooth
Having the right equipment and supplies is the first step in building a positive dental care routine. Choosing toothpaste with fluoride, using a fresh brush, and incorporating floss into the process will set you up for success and help you avoid future cavities. https://sandspringsfamilydentistry.com/9-tips-for-cavity-prevention/

Here are the things you should be doing everyday to prevent cavities: 

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day
  • Use toothpaste that contains fluoride 
  • Floss your teeth at least once a day 
  • Rinse your mouth with mouthwash 

By following a regular dental cleaning schedule, you can ensure that your teeth are clean and cavity-free. 

Visit your dentist regularly 

Regular visits to your dentist are another important step to ensuring your teeth are as healthy as possible. These visits allow your dental provider to do a thorough exam and cleaning. They should be able to detect cavities forming through an exam and x-rays before you can see them or feel them.

Your dentist will address any potential concerns during these visits before they become severe enough to require more complex treatments like crowns or root canals. They’ll also do a deeper cleaning to help remove any plaque or bacteria building up in hard-to-reach places.

You should be visiting your dentist once every six months for an exam and cleaning. 

Keeping up with these visits will ensure you stay proactive and address any concerns before they progress into something more serious. 

Be prepared and know what to do when you notice a cavity 

The chances are good that at some point in your life, you’re going to have a cavity. With the proper prevention steps, you can avoid severe decay and catch the problem before it becomes more painful or results in tooth loss. 

After reading this article, you should better understand what cavities are, what to expect when you have one, and how you can actively prevent future cavities from forming. All of these things can help you be more prepared and keep your teeth in the best shape possible.

new patient call to action

Your welcome starts here

Your new patient visit at Aspen Dental is our most important appointment together.

Book your first visit
Share on :
Twitter XlinkedinFacebook

Related Blogs