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Tooth Cavities: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

What is a cavity?

When food and bacteria build up in your teeth, it can form plaque. The bacteria in plaque produce acids that have the ability to erode the enamel on the surface of your teeth.

Brushing and flossing your teeth regularly can help get rid of the sticky plaque. If the plaque is allowed to build up, it can continue to eat away at your teeth and create cavities.

A cavity forms a hole in your tooth. If left untreated, a cavity can eventually destroy your tooth. An untreated cavity can also create more serious complications, like a tooth abscess or an infection.

Areas in your mouth that may be at a higher risk of developing plaque include:

  • chewing surfaces of your molars where bits of food can collect in the grooves and crevices
  • between your teeth
  • the bottom of your teeth near your gums

Frequently eating foods that tend to cling to your teeth may also increase your risk of a cavity. Some examples of these foods include:

  • dried fruit
  • ice cream
  • hard candy
  • soda
  • sugary foods like cake, cookies, and gummy candy

5 Possible signs of a cavity

There are several signs that may indicate the beginning of a cavity. There are also a number of red flags that an existing cavity is getting larger.

Here are some of the most common signs you may have a cavity.

  1. Hot and cold sensitivity

Sensitivity that lingers after eating hot or cold food could be a sign that you have a cavity.

When the enamel on your tooth starts to wear away, it can affect the dentin, which is the hard tissue layer below the enamel. Dentin contains lots of microscopic little hollow tubes.

When there isn’t enough enamel to protect the dentin, foods that are hot, cold, sticky, or acidic can stimulate the cells and nerve inside your tooth. This is what creates the sensitivity you feel.

  1. Lingering sensitivity to sweets

Although hot and cold are the most common sensitivities when you have a cavity, a lingering sensitivity to sweets and sugary drinks can also point to tooth decay.

Similar to temperature sensitivity, a lingering discomfort from sweets is often a result of damage to the enamel and, more specifically, the start of a cavity.



  1. Toothache

An ongoing ache in one or more of your teeth can indicate a cavity. In fact, pain is one of the most common symptoms of a cavity.

Sometimes this ache can come on suddenly, or it can happen as a result of something you eat. This includes pain and discomfort in or around your mouth. You may also feel pain and pressure when you bite down on food.

  1. Staining on tooth

Stains on your tooth may first appear as white spots. As the tooth decay becomes more advanced, the stain can become darker.

Staining caused by a cavity can be brown, black, or white, and typically appears on the surface of the tooth.

  1. A hole or pit in your tooth

If the white spot on your tooth worsens(which indicates the start of the cavity), you will end up with a hole or pit in your tooth that you may be able to see when you look in the mirror or feel when you run your tongue over the surface of your teeth.

Some holes,especially those in between your teeth or in crevices, can’t be seen or felt. But you may still feel pain or sensitivity in the area of thecavity.If you notice a hole or pit in your tooth and make an appointment to see a dentist.


The treatment that’s recommended for tooth decay can depend on its stage. Let’s take a look at the different treatment options based on the progression of tooth decay.

Initial demineralization

This earliest stage of tooth decay can actually be reversed before more permanent damage occurs. This can be achieved by treating the teeth with fluoride.

You can receive a fluoride treatment at your dentist’s office. It’s often applied to your teeth in the form of a gel or varnish. Fluoride works to strengthen enamel, making it more resistant to the acids produced by plaque bacteria.


Enamel decay

When tooth decay enters this stage, cavities are often present. Fillings are used to treat cavities.

When giving a filling, your dentist will first use a tool to clear away any areas of decay. They’ll then fill the hole with a material such as resin, ceramic, or dental amalgam. This material is typically the same color as your tooth.

Dentin decay

Because dentin is softer than the enamel, decay moves at a faster rate when it reaches this stage. If identified early, dentin decay may be treated with a filling. In more advanced cases, placement of a crown may be required.

crown is a covering that covers the top portion of your tooth above the gums (also called the crown of the tooth). The decayed area is removed before the crown is placed. Some healthy tooth tissue may be removed as well to ensure that the crown fits well to your tooth.

Pulp damage

When tooth decay has reached the pulp, you’ll often need a root canal. In a root canal, the damaged pulp is removed. The tooth cavity is then cleaned and filled in. A crown is placed on the affected tooth.


If an abscess has formed in your tooth, your dentist will likely perform a root canal to remove the infection and seal the tooth. In severe cases, the affected tooth may need to be removed completely.

Antibiotics may also be prescribed to help treat an abscess. These are medications that kill bacteria.

What can you do to prevent a cavity?

Practicing good dental hygiene is the first step in the fight against cavities.

Here are some of the best ways to protect yourself against cavities and more serious tooth decay issues:

  • See your dentist every 6 months for regular cleanings and exams.
  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day with a toothpaste that contains fluoride.
  • Establish a regular flossing routine, cleaning between your teeth at least once a day with floss or a water flosser.
  • Drink water throughout the day to help rinse your teeth and boost saliva flow. Having a dry mouth may increase your risk of cavities.
  • Try not to sip on sugary sodas or juices on a regular basis, and try to cut back on sugary foods.
  • Ask your dentist for preventive products.  if you’re very cavity-prone, ask your dentist for a prescription for high-fluoride toothpaste or rinse with a fluoride mouthwash like ACT, which is great for kids and adults.

The bottom line

Cavities start off small, but can cause tooth decay and other serious problems if they’re allowed to get bigger.

If you notice any tooth sensitivity, pain, discomfort, discoloration, or holes in your teeth, don’t hesitate to call your dentist. The sooner you get a cavity checked, the less invasive and more successful the treatment is likely to be.