How are cavities treated?

Cavities are treated in a number of different ways, depending on the extent of tooth decay. If decay is not extensive, the decayed portion of the tooth is removed by drilling and replaced with a restorative material such as silver alloy, gold, porcelain, or a composite resin filling.

Restorative materials are considered safe. Concerns have been raised over the safety of mercury-based silver amalgams in particular, but these concerns are not supported by any credible evidence, and the ADA, FDA, and other public health agencies continue to support the safety of this restorative material. Allergies to silver amalgam are rare, as are allergies to other restorative materials.

If the decay is extensive and there is limited tooth structure remaining, crowns will be used. If a crown is needed, the decayed or weakened area of the tooth is removed and repaired and a crown is fitted over the remainder of the tooth. Crowns are made from gold, porcelain, or porcelain fused to metal.

If the decay causes the nerve or pulp of the tooth to die, a root canal will be performed. During this procedure, the center of the tooth (including the nerve, blood vessel, and tissue) is removed along with the decayed portions of the tooth. The roots are then filled with a sealing material. If necessary, a crown can be placed over the filled tooth.

Several new treatments are under development. One experimental technique uses fluorescent light to detect the development of cavities long before they can be detected by traditional means, such as X-rays or dental examination. In many cases, if cavities can be detected early, the decay process can be stopped or reversed.

Researchers are also working on a "smart filling" to prevent further tooth decay by slowly releasing fluoride over time around fillings and in adjacent teeth.

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