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How to Tell If You Have a Cavity

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A close-up image of a woman holding her face in discomfort due to a cavity.

Cavities—they’re much more common than most people think. They’re about more than discomfort and tooth sensitivity, though; cavities can quickly lead to permanent damage to your teeth and the surrounding areas if you aren’t careful. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of a cavity. 

The common signs of a cavity include tooth sensitivity, lingering discomfort, and visible stains or dark spots on your teeth. If these symptoms sound familiar, visit your dentist as soon as you can to get checked for a cavity.

What is a Cavity?

Inside your mouth, you have plenty of minuscule bacteria. They’re normally relatively harmless and thrive off the sugars you eat.

When these bacteria consume sugars, they produce acids as a byproduct. Over time, these acids become plaque—that sticky off-colour film that adheres to the teeth. Plaque is a sticky film that attaches to the hard, outer layer of your teeth called the enamel.

Usually, with proper dental hygiene, this plaque is removed when you brush your teeth. It’s like a constant back-and-forth; the bacteria create the plaque, and you eventually remove it. However, sometimes, you can’t get rid of all of the plaque, and the acids involved start to wear down the enamel of your teeth.

This is a cavity. It’s essentially a hole in your mouth that gradually worsens if left unaddressed. Eventually, cavities can wear entirely through the enamel to reach the more sensitive areas of your teeth, causing significant discomfort, pain, and irritation.

Are Cavities Serious?

When people think of cavities, most imagine some discomfort or irritation here and there. However, they pose a bigger risk than you may think at first.

As cavities wear away more of your enamel, they can start to create tiny pits or gaps. The bacteria causing the initial problem can then settle into these gaps and become significantly harder to remove than when they first begin. There, they start to multiply and spread, causing further damage to the area.

It’s an exponential growth of bacteria, then. They continue multiplying, digging deeper into the tooth, and can eventually reach the delicate nerves and pulp at the center of the tooth. This is why it’s so essential to recognize the signs of a cavity; it lets you intervene sooner, before any of the severe symptoms start developing.

The Signs of a Cavity

Spotting cavities is one of the easiest ways to tell if you’re dealing with this common condition or not. It helps to inspect your teeth whenever you brush or floss—cavities often appear as small dark spots on the teeth. If you notice significant discolouration on one of your teeth, pay extra attention to it when brushing; if you notice any pain or discomfort, you’re probably dealing with a cavity.

Other common signs of cavities include:

  • Tooth sensitivity, especially when exposed to hot or cold foods
  • Lingering toothaches
  • Visible pits on the teeth
  • Bad breath

If you ever notice severe pain or sudden shooting discomfort, it’s time to visit the dentist. These are signs that a cavity has reached the delicate inner layers of the teeth and is causing damage to the nerves.

When to See a Dentist for a Cavity

If you notice any signs of a cavity, it’s crucial to visit your dentist as soon as possible. Early intervention can prevent the decay from reaching the more sensitive inner layers of the tooth, reducing the need for more invasive treatments.

A young woman at the dentist being inspected for a cavity.

It’s important to note that leaving a cavity untreated can have severe complications. When the decay starts to reach the pulp of the teeth—the inner layer that helps keep the teeth alive—it can cause severe pain, infection, and even tooth loss. In some cases, cavities can also lead to more serious health complications when left untreated.

This is just one reason why regular dental checkups, exams, and cleanings are so essential. Your dentist can keep an eye out for the early signs of a cavity and prevent them from spreading and causing widespread damage throughout your teeth.

How to Treat a Cavity

If your dentist thinks you have a cavity, they’ll need to examine the area. In the earliest stages, your dentist may recommend fluoride treatments—this helps remineralize the enamel of your teeth and prevents further decay.

However, if the cavity is wearing through enough of the enamel, you may need more advanced treatment. Depending on the extent of the damage, you may need a:

  • Fillings, where the decayed portion of the tooth is removed. Then, this gap is filled with a composite material that restores the tooth’s function and prevents further decay.
  • Root canal, where the infected pulp in the tooth is removed and replaced with a synthetic material.
  • A tooth extraction, where the entire tooth is removed if it’s beyond saving. Then, a dental implant or bridge can be installed to restore the function and appearance of the missing tooth.

Get Checked for Cavities

At Dentistry on Danforth, we’re here to help. If you’re worried about cavities, notice any discomfort, or just need a regular cleaning and exam, our team is here to help your teeth stay strong and healthy. Contact our team today to request an appointment!

Written by Dr. Kostas Papadopoulos

Dr. Kostas Papadopoulos received his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the University of Toronto in 1992 after completing 3 years of biochemistry and the 4-year program in dentistry. He enjoys continuing education and has attended numerous rehabilitative and cosmetic dentistry programs, including courses taught by Dr. John Kois.

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