Cavities—and the resulting tooth decay—are among the most common dental conditions, with more than 90% of U.S. adults getting a cavity at least once in their lives.
Although they can be fixed pretty quickly, it’s important to catch cavities early on. For this reason, we compiled this guide to help you identify a cavity in its early stages so you can make an appointment with your dentist and get it taken care of right away.
Keep reading to find out what a cavity is, what causes one to form, and how to tell if you currently have one.
Before we get to discussing what a cavity is, let’s briefly go over how your tooth is structured. (We promise this will go a long way in helping you understand why cavities form in the first place!)
Each tooth has two parts: a crown and a root. The crown lies right above the gum line and is the pearly-white part that you can see with your own eyes. On the other hand, the root is the invisible part that’s hidden in the gums and provides the tooth’s support. Although many dental conditions are implicated with the root, it’s mainly the crown we’re concerned with when it comes to cavities.
Cavities form in one of the tooth’s three layers: the enamel, the dentin, and the pulp.
The pulp is the innermost portion of the tooth. It contains lots of nerves and blood vessels and is responsible for providing the tooth with vital nutrients.
Dentin makes up the tooth’s middle layer and is about 70% of the tooth’s total mass. It contains microscopic tubes and transmits signals between the outer and inner parts of the tooth.
Finally, the outermost layer of the tooth is called enamel, which is the hardest tissue in the entire body. Enamel is mostly made up of minerals and is responsible for protecting the tooth from outside elements.
A cavity is a small hole that forms in your enamel, which can eventually spread to deeper layers of the tooth. Cavities form thanks to plaque, a bacteria-filled film that forms on your teeth and gums.
Although everyone has a buildup of plaque, too much of it can pose a problem. This is because the bacteria in plaque feed on sugar in your food and release acids that eat away the enamel that’s crucial for protecting your teeth.
If a cavity isn’t addressed quickly, it can get deeper and make its way into the other layers of your tooth, such as the dentin and even the pulp. Three types of cavities correspond to how far the damage has spread:
For the most part, how likely you are to get a cavity has to do with how much sugar you consume and how well you stick to your oral hygiene routine. However, your genes may also play a role in your predisposition to getting a cavity.
Because your genes control how your teeth develop, you may be more likely than others to develop cavities. For instance, if your teeth didn’t form properly during development, your enamel may be less resistant to plaque bacteria. In addition, crooked teeth—which can also be hereditary—may make it harder to clean your teeth, making them a more welcoming environment to bacteria.
However—for the most part—the causes of tooth decay have to do with your lifestyle. For instance, eating or drinking sugar feeds the plaque bacteria that live on your teeth and gums. These tend to release acids that contribute to breaking down enamel.
Clearing away plaque is one of the surest ways to prevent this from occurring, which requires you to brush and floss consistently. However, not following a consistent oral hygiene routine can cause plaque to build up on your teeth and gums, which increases your chances of developing cavities.
Last but not least, age is another factor that might increase one’s chances of getting cavities. Although cavities can affect individuals of any age, they tend to be more of a problem for older adults. Because older generations received less preventive dental care and fluoride in dental care products, they were more likely to get dental fillings. Over time, these fillings tend to weaken, allowing bacteria to accumulate around them and release acid that leads to tooth decay.
Although a cavity can be easily fixed, it’s important to address it as soon as possible (otherwise, it can spread to deeper layers of your tooth).
Identifying a cavity in its early stages may be difficult as it may not show any signs at all. This is exactly why going to your dentist for regular checkups is so important, as they may be able to identify it early on. However, once a cavity begins to progress, there are sure symptoms that you’ll be able to pick up on.
Here are four signs that you may have a dental cavity:
1. Staining: A cavity may first appear as a tiny white spot due to the breaking down of minerals in your enamel. As the decay progresses, the stain can become darker. So, if you notice a brown or black spot on the surface of your tooth, then it’s a telltale sign of a cavity.
2. Hole in Your Tooth: If the colored spot on your tooth gets worse, then you will likely end up with a small hole in your tooth that will gradually increase in size. For the most part, you’d be able to feel the hole if you ran your tongue over your tooth. You may also be able to see it in the mirror. However, for those tricky spots, you may not realize there’s a hole at all, which makes regular trips to the dentist so important.
3. Sensitivity to Hot and Cold: There are various causes of tooth sensitivity. However, if eating cold or hot foods causes pain, it’s good to get checked out for a cavity. This is because the middle layer of your tooth—the dentin—contains microscopic tubes connected to your tooth’s nerve endings. Feeling sensitivity can signify that the cavity has progressed to the middle layers of the tooth, which needs to be addressed right away.
4. Toothache: Similar to the above reason, feeling pain is a sign that the damage has progressed towards the inner layers of your tooth. Whether you feel a sporadic toothache or constant pain, it’s a good idea to get yourself to the dentist as soon as possible to get the cavity filled in. Otherwise, it might be necessary to undergo a root canal—something to avoid if it’s possible.
Even if you have your oral hygiene routine down pat, you may still experience one of the telltale signs of a cavity. Whether you’re noticing a small stain on your tooth, sensitivity to extreme temperatures, or just a plain toothache, then it’s a good idea to see your dentist as soon as possible.
Although getting a cavity filled in is nobody’s idea of fun, Flossy’s network of professional dentists will make the experience as quick and painless as it can be.