The signs and symptoms of cavities vary, depending on their extent and location. When a cavity is just beginning, you may not have any symptoms at all. As the decay gets larger, it may cause signs and symptoms such as:
- Tooth sensitivity
- Mild to sharp pain when eating or drinking something sweet, hot or cold
- Visible holes or pits in your teeth
- Brown, black or white staining on any surface of a tooth
- Pain when you bite down
When to see a dentist
You may not be aware that a cavity is forming. That’s why it’s important to have regular dental checkups and cleanings, even when your mouth feels fine. However, if you experience toothache or mouth pain, see your dentist as soon as possible.
Cavities are caused by tooth decay — a process that occurs over time. Here’s how tooth decay develops:
Plaque forms. Your mouth naturally contains many types of bacteria. Some thrive on food and drinks that contain certain forms of sugar. When these sugars aren’t cleaned off your teeth, the bacteria quickly begin feeding on them and producing acids; the bacteria, form bacterial plaque — a sticky film that coats your teeth. If you run your tongue along your teeth, you may be able to feel this plaque forming — it’s slightly rough and it’s more noticeable on your back teeth, especially close to your gums. If the plaque is not removed while it’s soft, it becomes hard and difficult to remove — a good place for bacteria to hide.
The acids in plaque remove minerals in your tooth’s hard, outer enamel. This erosion causes tiny openings or holes in the enamel — the first stage of cavities. Once areas of enamel are worn away, the bacteria and acid can reach the next layer of your teeth, called dentin. This layer is softer than enamel and less resistant to acid.
As tooth decay develops, the bacteria and acid continue their march through your teeth, moving next to the inner tooth material (pulp) that contains nerves and blood vessels. The pulp becomes swollen and irritated from the bacteria. When decay advances to this extent, you may have a severe toothache, sensitivity, pain when biting or other symptoms. Your body also may respond to these bacterial invaders by sending white blood cells to fight the infection. This may result in a tooth abscess — a pocket of pus that’s caused by a bacterial infection.
Everyone who has teeth is at risk of getting cavities, but the following factors can increase risk:
Decay most often occurs in your back teeth (molars and premolars). These teeth have lots of grooves, pits and crannies that can collect food particles. As a result, they’re harder to keep clean than your smoother, easy-to-reach front teeth. Plaque can build and bacteria can thrive between your back teeth, producing the acid that destroys tooth enamel.
Certain foods and drinks.
Foods that cling to your teeth for a long time — such as milk, ice cream, honey, sugar, soda, dried fruit, cake, cookies, hard candy, breath mints, dry cereal, and chips — are more likely to cause decay than foods that are easily washed away by saliva.
Frequent snacking or sipping.
When you steadily snack or sip sodas, you give mouth bacteria more fuel to produce acids that attack your teeth and wear them down. And sipping soda or other acidic drinks throughout the day helps create a continual acid bath over your teeth.
Bedtime infant feeding.
Parents are encouraged not to give babies bedtime bottles filled with milk, formula, juice or other sugar-containing liquids. These beverages will remain on teeth for hours while your baby sleeps, providing food for decay-causing bacteria. This damage is often called baby bottle tooth decay. Letting a toddler who’s transitioning from a bottle wander around drinking from a sippy cup can cause similar damage.
Not getting enough fluoride.
Fluoride, a naturally occurring mineral, helps prevent cavities and can even reverse the earliest stages of tooth damage. Because of its benefits for teeth, fluoride is added to many public water supplies. It’s also a common ingredient in toothpaste and mouth rinses. Bottled water may not contain fluoride.
Younger or older age.
In the United States, cavities are common in children and teenagers. Older adults also are at higher risk, as more of us keep our teeth as we age. Over time, teeth can wear down and gums may recede, making teeth more vulnerable to root decay. Older adults also may use more medications that reduce saliva flow, increasing the risk of tooth decay.
Dry mouth is caused by a lack of saliva, which helps prevent tooth decay by washing away food and plaque from your teeth. Substances found in saliva also help counter the acid produced by bacteria and can even help repair early tooth decay. Certain medications, some medical conditions, radiation to your head or neck, or certain chemotherapy drugs can increase your risk of cavities by reducing saliva production.
Worn fillings or dental devices.
Over the years, dental fillings can weaken, begin to break down or develop rough edges. This allows plaque to build up more easily and makes it harder to remove. Dental devices can also stop fitting well, allowing decay to begin underneath them.
Eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia can lead to significant tooth erosion and cavities. Stomach acid from repeated vomiting (purging) washes over the teeth and begins dissolving the enamel. Eating disorders can also interfere with saliva production.
Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can cause stomach acid to flow into your mouth (reflux), wearing away the enamel of your teeth and causing significant tooth damage. Your dentist may recommend that you consult your doctor to see if gastric reflux is the cause of your enamel loss.
Cavities and tooth decay are so common that you may not take them seriously. And you may think that it doesn’t matter if children get cavities in their baby teeth. However, cavities and tooth decay can have serious and lasting complications, even for children who don’t have their permanent teeth yet.
Complications may include:
- Tooth abscess
- Pus around a tooth, especially when you press on your gums
- Broken teeth
- Chewing problems
- Positioning shifts of permanent teeth after losing baby teeth prematurely
When cavities and decay become severe, you may have:
- Pain that interferes with daily living, preventing you from going to school or work
- Weight loss or nutrition problems from painful or difficult eating or chewing
- Tooth loss, which may affect your appearance, as well as your confidence and self-esteem
- In rare cases, a tooth abscess that can cause serious or even life-threatening infections
If you believe you may have a cavity, contact us today!
For more information on cavities, please visit MayoClinic.com.