How To Tell If You Have A Cavity

Most people generally avoid visiting the dentist… until they have pain. Various things could cause pain in the teeth or mouth, but the commonest reason is a Cavity.

If you’ve never had a cavity, you might not know how to recognize one. Early detection and treatment of dental cavities are essential to the wellbeing of your teeth. This article shows how to tell if you have a cavity so you could visit your dentist sooner.

What Is A Cavity?


A cavity which is otherwise known as a hole in the tooth is one of commonest reasons for visiting a dentist and it affects people of all ages. These holes are as a result of tooth decay caused by bacteria.

The holes may or may not be visible to you, which is why you need regular dental check-ups. If left undetected, it could get worse and cause pain. They can also lead to damage to your teeth and gums; loss of teeth, and infection.

That’s why it’s essential to know when you have a cavity to prevent it from becoming worse.


How To Tell If You Have A Cavity

Cavities are one of the most well-known dental diseases, but they may be hard to tell on your own. Listed below are the symptoms you might experience if you have a cavity.

1. Tooth Sensitivity

tooth sensitivity

This is one of the earliest signs of a cavity and it comes in form of an uncomfortable tingling or tickling in your teeth whenever you take something hot, cold, acidic, or sugary. It can also be described as a shocking sensation.

This feeling occurs because the acid produced by the bacteria wears down your enamel, which is the outermost layer of the tooth. This layer protects the nerves within your teeth.

As that protective layer weakens, the nerves become exposed and become more sensitive to normal signals.

2. Stains/ Spots

As the enamel is further weakened, the hole may not be visible right away. Instead, you might see a grey, brown, or black spot. If left untreated, actual holes will develop.

3. Visible Holes

Sometimes cavities can develop on the chewing surface of the tooth. These cavities are easy to see. However, cavities often develop on the sides that are not visible and difficult to see.

4. Food Packing

Food getting stuck in your tooth may sometimes be the only tell-tale sign of a cavity. This could lead to the hole getting worse, and with time there might be associated pain.

5. Toothache


If it hurts, then something’s wrong. At first, you may only notice pain when you bite on hard food. As the cavity progresses, you could feel pain even when you bite on something soft.

The pain usually starts as an ache that is stimulated by chewing. Over time as the cavity increases, the pain becomes constant and could also disturb sleep and daily activities.

6. Nothing

In the early stages of a cavity, there may be no symptoms. This is the best time to catch and treat a cavity before it gets worse. This is why having a routine dental checkup helps.


What Are The Causes Of Cavities?

It is important to understand the causes of cavities so you can learn the proper way to care for your teeth. Tooth cavities are usually by an interplay of four factors.

1. Sugar

sugar causes cavities

The major cause of tooth cavities is sugar. Although most people don’t like to think about it, you have naturally occurring bacteria live in your mouth. Consuming sugary foods and drinks allows these bacteria to thrive.

When these bacteria feed on the carbohydrates (sugar) that linger on your teeth and in your mouth, acid forms. This acid produced wears off the layers of the teeth leading to tooth decay.

2. Plaque

This is a sticky film that coats the teeth and contains bacteria. It is usually removed by brushing the teeth. If it is not removed when soft, it hardens and becomes difficult to remove. This is called tartar or calculus.

3. Susceptible Tooth Surface

These are areas on the tooth surface which are more prone to food stagnation and plaque retention. These surfaces include the chewing surfaces of the molar and premolar teeth, smooth surfaces, and also margins of filled teeth.

4. Time

The plaque bacteria on the tooth surface feed on the sugars in the mouth to produce acid. This acid production causes the pH of the mouth to fall and leads to the breakdown and destruction of the tooth surfaces.

The acid remains on the teeth for about 30 minutes. So each time you eat a sugary snack, your teeth are vulnerable to damage from the acids for the next 30 minutes. It takes about 30 to 60mins before the pH of the mouth returns to normal.

Other causes of tooth cavity are –

5. Poor Oral Hygiene

poor oral hygiene

Not brushing your teeth regularly allows plaque to build up and attack the tooth enamel.

6. Dry Mouth

Saliva acts as a self-cleaning agent of the teeth. It washes plaque away from the teeth. If you have a dry mouth with very little saliva, plaque may build up more quickly. Dry mouth can also be as a result of some medical conditions such as Sjogren Syndrome.

7. Medical Problems

Medical conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can contribute to a tooth cavity. This condition causes acid from your stomach to flow back into your mouth.

Also, conditions like Bulimia nervosa which is an eating disorder in which bouts of overeating are followed by under eating, or self-induced vomiting increases the risk of a tooth cavity when the teeth are exposed to stomach acid during frequent vomiting.

In addition, some types of cancer treatment that expose the head and neck to radiation can promote a tooth cavity by changing the makeup of the saliva to promote increased bacterial growth. It can also cause dry mouth.

How Is A Cavity Diagnosed?

The treatment of a cavity is based on symptoms, severity, and disease progression. Your dentist may ask you some questions so as to ascertain the correct diagnosis and proper treatment plan. Some of these questions are listed below.
• Is the tooth sensitive to hot or cold drinks?
• Is the tooth painful?
• Is the pain constant or is it only felt when chewing?
• Does biting down make your pain worse?
• Do you eat a lot of sweets or take sugary drinks?
• Is your mouth usually dry?

A ‘yes’ answer to all or most of these questions strongly suggests a cavity. Also, a low frequency of brushing the teeth and not using a fluoride-containing toothpaste are strong indicators that you may have a cavity.

Your answers to these questions together with a proper examination of your mouth and teeth will help your dentist arrive at a proper diagnosis and enable treatment planning.

The examination may involve probing your teeth with instruments to check for soft areas and taking X-rays of the affected tooth/teeth to determine the extent of the damage.

How Is A Cavity Treated?

contact your dentist

A cavity is treated in any of the following ways –

1. Fluoride Treatments

If your cavity is fresh, a fluoride treatment may be applied on your tooth to help restore the outer covering. This can sometimes reverse a cavity in the very early stages.

Professional fluoride treatments contain more fluoride than the amount found in tap water, toothpaste and mouth rinses. Fluoride treatments may be liquid, gel, or varnish that’s brushed onto your teeth or placed in a small tray that fits over your teeth.

2. Fillings

Also called restorations. This is the main treatment option when the cavity has progressed beyond the early stage. Fillings are made of various materials, such as tooth-colored composite resins, glass ionomer cement or dental amalgam that is a combination of several materials. The tooth is drilled and cleaned before the filling material is applied to seal up the hole.

3. Crowns

For extensive damage or weakened teeth, you may need a crown — a custom-fitted covering that replaces your tooth’s entire natural crown. This helps to strengthen the tooth and it fits like a cap.

Your dentist drills away all the decayed area and leaves enough of the rest of your tooth to ensure the crown fits perfectly. Crowns may be made of gold, porcelain, resin, porcelain fused to metal or other materials.

4. Root Canal Treatment

When the cavity is extensive and reaches the innermost layer of your tooth (the pulp), you may need a root canal treatment. At this point, the tooth has become painful. This is a treatment to repair and save a badly damaged or infected tooth instead of removing it.

5. Tooth Extraction

extracted tooth

Some teeth become so severely decayed that they can’t be restored and removal (tooth extraction)becomes the only option. It is advised to replace a missing tooth after it is removed.

How Do I Prevent Cavities?

Just like everything else, prevention is better than cure. Here are a few things you could do to ensure you don’t get a cavity.

• Make sure you brush your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride-containing toothpaste and medium or soft textured toothbrush. This is done preferably after your breakfast and especially before going to bed.

brush your teeth

• Clean between your teeth daily with dental floss or interdental cleaners. These areas cannot be reached by your regular toothbrush.

• Rinse daily with a fluoride-containing mouthwash. Some rinses also have antiseptic ingredients to help kill bacteria that cause plaque.

• Eat nutritious and balanced meals. Limit the intake of snacks, sugary substances, soda, foods high in carbohydrates, and sticky foods, which can remain on the tooth surface. If they have to be eaten, brush your teeth soon afterward. Replace these sugary foods with healthy options like fruits and vegetables.

eat fruits

• Chewing of sugar-free gum after meals can also help in the prevention of cavities, especially if you can’t brush at that time.

• Visit your dentist regularly for routine check-ups and professional cleaning which is also called scaling and polishing. It is recommended that you visit your dentist at least twice a year. These check-ups can help identify cavities on time before they cause troubling symptoms and lead to problems. If a cavity is treated before it starts causing pain, you may not need extensive treatment and this saves you a whole lot of money, time and stress.

Now that you know how to tell if you have a cavity, don’t hesitate to visit a dentist as soon as possible if you recognize any of the symptoms in your teeth.

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Onyeka Mgbemere, BDS

Dr. Onyeka Mgbemere is a graduate of Dentistry and a licensed dentist who is passionate about the promotion of oral health education and prevention of oral diseases. She is currently undergoing her residency program in Oral medicine after spending years working at a Naval hospital. Her hobbies are watching movies and reading.