Cavities are holes, or areas of tooth decay, that form in your teeth surfaces. Causes include plaque buildup, eating lots of sugary snacks and poor oral hygiene. Treatments include dental fillings, root canal therapy and tooth extraction. The sooner you treat a cavity, the better your chance for a predictable outcome and optimal oral health.
A cavity is a hole in a tooth that develops from tooth decay. Cavities form when acids in your mouth wear down (erode) your tooth’s hard outer layer (enamel). Anyone can get a cavity. Proper oral hygiene and regular dental cleanings can prevent cavities.
Another name for tooth cavities is dental caries.
Cavities can start on any tooth surface. Here are common types of cavities and where they occur:
More than 80% of Americans have at least one cavity by the time they enter their mid-30s. Cavities are one of the most common chronic diseases affecting people of all ages.
Tooth decay can happen at any age, although cavities are more common in children. This is because many children don’t brush properly or regularly enough and they tend to consume more sugary foods and drinks.
Many adults also get cavities. Sometimes, new decay develops around the edges of cavities treated in childhood. Adults are also more likely to have receding gums. This condition exposes your teeth roots to plaque, which can cause cavities.
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Tooth decay on the outer enamel surface doesn’t usually cause pain or symptoms. You’re more likely to experience symptoms as decay reaches beyond the enamel into the dentin and pulp.
Cavity symptoms include:
Cavities can affect all layers of your tooth.
There are five main tooth decay stages:
Many factors play a role in the development of cavities.
Here’s how it works:
Certain factors increase your risk of cavities, including:
While you can’t “catch” a cavity, the bacteria that cause cavities can pass from one person to another. In turn, any bacteria you pick up from another person (from kissing, for instance) can lead to tooth decay and other oral health issues over time.
Twice-a-year dental checkups are the best way to catch cavities early, before they worsen or grow larger. A dentist will use a number of instruments to examine your teeth. A tooth with a cavity will feel softer when your dentist probes it.
Your dentist may also take dental X-rays. These images show cavities before the decay is visible.
Tooth decay treatment depends on the severity of your condition.
Cavity treatments include:
In the very early stages of tooth decay, fluoride treatments can repair damaged enamel — a process called remineralization. This can reverse the early signs of cavities. You may need prescription toothpaste and mouthwash, as well as fluoride treatments at the dental office.
Once a hole forms in your tooth, a dentist drills out the decayed tissue and fills the hole. Dental fillings consist of composite resin (a tooth-colored material), silver amalgam or gold.
Root canal therapy relieves pain from advanced tooth decay. Endodontists (specialists who treat issues that affect a tooth’s root) usually perform the procedure. During root canal treatment, an endodontist removes the tooth pulp, then fills the canals and pulp chamber with gutta-percha (a special filling material). In some cases, you might also need a dental crown to strengthen the affected tooth.
If root canal therapy isn’t possible, your healthcare provider may recommend tooth extraction (pulling the tooth). You may need a dental bridge or dental implant to replace a pulled permanent tooth. Your dentist can tell you about your specific options.
Proper oral hygiene, including regular brushing and flossing, can get rid of plaque, acids and cavity-causing bacteria. Good teeth and gum care includes:
When tooth decay goes untreated for too long, you can lose a large portion of your tooth and need an extraction. Advanced tooth decay can lead to a severe infection inside your tooth and under your gums (tooth abscess). This infection can spread throughout your body. Rarely, infection from a tooth abscess can be fatal.
Most people with cavities don’t experience any long-term problems. Because cavities develop slowly, it’s important to get regular dental checkups. Fluoride treatments can stop tooth decay in its early stages. Once tooth decay advances to the root, you risk losing the tooth or developing a painful abscess (infection).
You should schedule an appointment with a dentist if you experience:
Here are some questions you might want to ask your dentist:
Though cavities are hard to see in the early stages, you might notice a small, white, chalky area on your tooth enamel. As the cavity worsens, you may see brown or black spots on your tooth.
Cavities and stains both cause tooth discoloration, so it can be easy to confuse the two. Generally, cavities are darker in color compared to stains. Additionally, stains tend to affect several teeth. But if you see one tiny spot on one tooth, chances are it’s a cavity.
If you think you have a cavity, call a dentist right away. Prompt, timely treatment is key.
It depends on the severity of tooth decay. For instance, if you have a very small cavity that only affects your enamel, you won’t feel it. But when decay reaches the inner layers of your tooth, you may experience pain or sensitivity to heat, cold or sweets. (Teeth sensitivity doesn’t always mean you have a cavity. But it’s a good idea to get it checked out, just in case.)
Small tooth cavities turn into large cavities over time. As decay worsens, it affects the deeper layers of your tooth. This can lead to pain, infection and ultimately, tooth loss. Early treatment is essential for long-term oral health.
Yes, in the very early stages, you may be able to reverse cavities. Tooth enamel can repair itself. If a cavity is very small, and it hasn’t spread beyond your enamel yet, then you may be able to remineralize your tooth with fluoride treatments and improved oral hygiene.
Keep in mind, though — if the cavity spreads to your dentin, you’ll need a filling, crown or other dental restoration to fix it.
If a cavity is painful, it means the decay has spread to the deeper layers of your tooth. At this stage, you’ll need a dentist to repair the cavity. When treated quickly, a dentist may be able to save your tooth.
Most dentists prefer to save your natural teeth. If a cavity results in an abscessed tooth, or the damage is too significant, you may need a tooth extraction. A dentist can discuss your treatment options in detail.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you have signs of a cavity, don’t hesitate to see a dentist for care. They’ll check your tooth and recommend the best course of action. If you catch tooth decay in its earliest stage, you might not even need a filling. That’s why it’s so important to seek care right away.
Dental visits can be stressful, especially when you don’t know what’s going to happen. But establishing care with a provider you trust can help take the fear out of sitting in the dental chair. Your dentist will teach you tips for brushing and flossing that can help you avoid new cavities and keep you smiling for years to come.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/27/2023.
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