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5 common signs of a cavity and how to get rid of them

MK Manoylov,Michael B. Ferguson
·6-min read
cavity
Tooth pain or sensitivity is a common sign of a cavity. CiydemImages/Getty Images
  • Common signs of a cavity include tooth discoloration, holes, and pain or sensitivity.

  • A cavity is tooth decay, often caused by eating sugary foods and drinks or failing to keep your teeth clean.

  • To prevent cavities, it's important to visit the dentist every 6 months, brush and floss regularly, and avoid frequent snacking.

  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Cavities are the second most common disease behind the common cold. Half the teenagers and a quarter of adults in the US get cavities in their lifetime.

To prevent cavities, it's important to spot the signs of tooth decay and mitigate behaviors that can harm your pearly whites. Here's how to recognize cavity symptoms and improve your dental hygiene.

Understanding cavities and how they form

Cavities occur when bacteria eat away at a tooth, says David Leader, DMD, a comprehensive care dentist at Tufts University. Cavities start at the outermost layer of the tooth, the enamel, and work their way toward the middle layer, called the dentin.

Eating sticky or sugary foods and beverages frequently is one of the biggest risk factors for cavities. Bacteria consume the sugar, flourish, and then produce acid that strips calcium away from your teeth, making them more susceptible to decay.

Some foods most notorious for causing cavities are:

  • Candy and chocolate

  • Soft drinks

  • Fruit juices

  • Flavored milk and yogurt

  • Sweet baked goods like cakes and cookies

Cavities are also more common for those who smoke cigarettes, as tobacco decreases and thickens the saliva in your mouth.

5 signs you may have a cavity

The start of a cavity can look like a small white area on the outside of your tooth or in areas between the teeth, says Allison Scully, DDS, a pediatric dentist at the Indiana University School of Dentistry.

But this can be difficult to spot without a dental X-ray. It's more likely that you'll experience one of the following signs of a cavity:

1. You spot discoloration on your tooth

Discoloration indicating a cavity can appear white, yellow, brown, or black. The darker the color, the more severe the decay. Orange and green patches can also indicate bacterial infections, especially in children.

However, the discoloration can also point to other factors like physical damage to the tooth, so it's a good idea to check with a dentist.

Important: Tooth stains can also cause discoloration. A cavity is different from a stain - if you have a cavity, you'll also likely feel symptoms like tooth sensitivity, rough texture, or holes.

2. You notice the outside of your tooth feels rough

This can be a sign of your tooth starting to break down, Scully says. The rough texture may feel like there are lots of small holes in your teeth.

3. You see a hole in your tooth

Sometimes cavities form in visible places, such as the grooves of teeth, between teeth, or under fillings. Bacteria has most likely worked their way through the enamel and is now in the dentin.

These bacteria strip the calcium away from our teeth. Since calcium is what makes our teeth hard, reduced amounts of calcium make the teeth softer and more susceptible to getting holes.

4. You feel a piece of tooth missing with your tongue

Even if you can't see it, you can probably feel pieces of your enamel missing. Feeling a hole in a tooth that hasn't been otherwise damaged can point to notable tooth decay.

5. You have a toothache, pain, or sensitivity

You may feel sensitivity to hot and cold items or sweet foods, since exposed dentin have little tubes that allow what you consume to reach the tooth's nerves, causing pain.

Cavities can even hit a tooth's internal nerve, causing a toothache.

Important: A cavity will not go away on its own. "If left untreated, the cavity can progress to include the tooth nerve causing severe unprovoked pain making it difficult to chew, and even get infected with serious health implications," says Vineet Dhar, MDS, a pediatric dentist at the University of Maryland.

When to see a dentist

If you spot any of these signs, don't hesitate to visit the dentist. "The earlier you visit your dentist; the easier and less invasive the treatment needs are likely to be," Scully says.

Most people should visit the dentist every six months in order to get a cleaning and check for cavities. However, others may need visits every three or four months, depending on oral health risk factors, like whether you've had a cavity before.

How to prevent cavities

brush teeth
Brushing your teeth at morning and night can help prevent cavities. Nitat Termmee/Getty Images

Though a cavity won't go away on its own, there are many ways to reduce your risk and prevent cavities from getting worse:

  • Stay away from acidic drinks. Coffee, tea, and soft drinks like soda can strip calcium from the enamel and increase your risk of developing cavities.

  • Limit sugary foods. If you do eat sugar, Leader recommends eating foods that dissolve quickly, like chocolate, versus those that last longer, like sucking candies. That way, you reduce the amount of time sugar stays in your mouth before bacteria can flush it out.

  • Brush and floss your teeth twice a day or more. You can get rid of food particles and bacteria from your mouth when you brush and floss. Scully recommends brushing and flossing after every meal, or at least twice a day.

  • Use more fluoride. Most toothpastes have fluoride in them, but Leader says that prescription high-fluoride toothpastes can help restore calcium in the teeth and rebuild enamel, making your teeth stronger.

  • Avoid frequent snacking. "Every time you eat or drink anything that is not plain water, cavities start to form for about 20 to 30 minutes," Scully says. "This means that if you tend to graze on foods throughout the day, cavities are forming for a longer time."

Insider's takeaway

Getting regular check-ups can help you catch cavities before they form. "Don't wait until you have symptoms of cavities to have a dental professional check your teeth," Leader says.

If you do spot the signs of a cavity, it means that tooth decay is well on its way, and you should go see a dental professional as soon as possible.

And even if you don't recognize the signs of a cavity, it doesn't mean you don't have one. Overall, it's important to consistently practice healthy dental hygiene habits to lower your risk for cavities.

"Eating well, maintaining good oral hygiene by brushing twice a day and regular flossing, and regularly visiting your dentist will help in ensuring that you remain healthy and at low risk for developing new cavities," Dhar says.

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