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Cavities, or dental caries, are small holes that initially form in the tooth’s outer hard layer, or tooth enamel. They are a form of tooth decay.
Anyone of any age can develop cavities due to:
You may not experience any symptoms from cavities in the early stages. As a cavity worsens, most people experience sharp tooth pain, especially when consuming hot, cold, or sugary foods and drinks.
Eventually, cavities cause sudden, random tooth pain when you bite down. You may also develop continuous, throbbing, or pounding pain if the cavity becomes severe enough.
The stages of cavity pain are:
When a cavity begins, it may not cause any symptoms.
As cavities progress, you may feel a sudden, sharp tooth pain when you consume hot, cold, starchy, acidic, or sugary foods and drinks. The sensitivity may also increase with exposure to cold air or ice. Removing the stimulus should quickly resolve the sensitivity.
People with moderate to severe cavities may experience a lot of pain when eating. This pain tends to be the most intense while biting down and chewing. It may also occur when teeth come into contact with something that is hot, cold, starchy, acidic, or sugary.
People with severe cavities and infections usually experience intense, continuous, throbbing, or pounding pain. Some people describe this sensation as someone drilling into your tooth or the surrounding area. It may also feel like your tooth or the surrounding area is pulsing, tingling, or numb.
Talk to a dentist if you experience tooth sensitivity or pain.
Also talk to a doctor if you experience:
Cavities can cause symptoms other than pain and sensitivity. People with cavities may experience:
To diagnose the problem, a dental professional will ask when your symptoms began, what worsens or triggers them, and how intense they are. They will also:
The best treatment for cavities depends on the extent of the cavity.
Professional fluoride treatments may help restore tooth enamel or even reverse tooth decay if a cavity is in the early stages. Professional fluoride treatments contain much higher fluoride concentrations than rinses, toothpastes, or tap water.
This procedure may involve having fluoride gels, liquids, or a varnish brushed onto the affected teeth. You may also wear small trays filled with fluoride that fit over your teeth.
Fillings, or restorations, are the most common treatment for cavities that have started to progress past the initial stages. During a dental filling procedure, a dentist removes the damaged enamel and/or dentin and fills the resulting space with tooth-colored materials such as resin or amalgam.
If cavities are extensive, you may require a crown, or a cap, that fits over the tooth. To place a crown, a dentist will remove the decayed tissues from the tooth, shape the tooth, and then permanently glue the cap on. Most crowns are made from high-strength ceramic or metal.
If the cavity involves the pulp, or inner tissues of the tooth, you may need a root canal. During a root canal, a dentist removes the diseased or dead pulp from the tooth and replaces it with a biocompatible material.
If cavities are severe, the tooth may need to be extracted, or surgically removed. You may get a bridge or dental implant to replace the lost tooth.
If a cavity is left untreated, a bacterial infection can form. If an infected tooth is left untreated, the infection can spread to the blood and cause severe complications, including death.
Depending on how severe the cavity or infection is, a tooth may need to be removed. You may undergo surgery to remove damaged or diseased tissues if the infection has spread to the jawbone or gums.
The outlook for someone with cavities depends on how early they receive a diagnosis and treatment.
If cavities are treated early enough, undergoing minor restoration procedures will often allow you to keep most of your natural tooth. Minor cavities may even resolve with the use of fluoride rinses or dental sealants.
If the cavity is severe enough, the tooth may be removed. In some cases, you may get a dental implant or bridge to replace the extracted tooth. If you lose several teeth, you may need to get a dental bridge or partial dentures.
A dentist should always evaluate and treat cavities. But you can do a few things at home to manage pain.
At-home remedies for cavity pain include:
There are plenty of things you can do to reduce the risk of developing cavities.
Tips for preventing cavities include:
When tooth decay begins, it may not cause any pain or other symptoms. But as cavities progress, they tend to cause sensitive teeth and pain, particularly when eating. Most people with severe cavities experience continuous, sharp, throbbing tooth pain.
Talk to a dentist as soon as possible if you experience tooth sensitivity or pain.
In some cases, early stage cavities are treatable using non-invasive techniques like fluoride treatments. But moderate-to-severe cavities may require require fillings, crowns, and/or root canals.
If you have a very severe cavity or infection, your tooth may need to be extracted and replaced.
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