Cavities are common, and most likely you have already experienced one. According to the National Institutes of Health, the common cold is the only condition more common than tooth decay and cavities. However, if you’ve never had tooth decay, you might wonder what cavities feel like. The answer depends on the foods you eat and the stage of the decay.
Definition of Cavities
Cavities are also referred to as dental caries or tooth decay. They occur when bacteria in your mouth produce acid that eats away at the enamel on your teeth and the underlying layer of dentin. Cavities are quite common and affect over 90 percent of the population. The majority of cavities are small and often go unnoticed because they don’t cause discomfort. Larger cavities tend to be more problematic.
How Cavities Develop
Bacteria thrive in your mouth naturally; some of the bacteria is healthy, but some of it can be harmful. When you eat sugary foods or beverages, like candy, potato chips, or soda, the bacteria in your mouth feeds on the sugar in the food or drink. It then produces acid, which can wear away the enamel on your teeth if it’s not cleaned off promptly. Eventually, cavities begin to form as the enamel wears away, leaving holes in the outer layers of the tooth. Eating too many sugary foods and poor oral hygiene both increase your chances of developing cavities. If you catch cavities in the early stages, it’s possible to reverse them by brushing your teeth with a toothpaste designed to restore enamel.
Signs and Symptoms
Cavities feel different depending on the stage of decay. In the early stages, it’s likely that you won’t feel anything. The enamel on your teeth doesn’t contain any nerves, so if the tooth decay is limited to that layer, you probably won’t notice it. You are likely to start noticing signs of cavities once the decay reaches the softer tissues inside your teeth. The following are common signs and symptoms of cavities:
- Tingling pain – This is often one of the first symptoms of tooth decay. You may feel pain after eating certain foods or when you bite down. If you experience pain without a trigger, it’s usually a sign that the nerve is infected.
- Toothache – Using the tooth results in a stabbing pain that may continue even if you aren’t chewing. Toothaches make it difficult to concentrate and can disrupt your sleep at night.
- Fever emanating from a toothache – Sometimes, a toothache can cause a fever to develop. If this is the case, see your dentist as soon as possible.
- Sensitivity to sweets – One of the most common symptoms of cavities. Sensitivity to sweets begins when the enamel wears away, exposing the layers underneath. It usually feels like a tingly sensation when you eat sweet or sugary foods or beverages.
- Sensitivity to temperature – It’s common for teeth with cavities to be sensitive to changes in temperature. Tooth sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures is normal for some people, but if you experience a sudden sensitivity to temperatures, then it’s likely due to tooth decay.
- Bad breath – As tooth decay attacks your teeth, it makes room for bacteria to grow; this can lead to bad breath.
- Stains – The appearance of a black, brown, or white spot on the surface of your tooth may indicate decay. Your dentist can determine whether tooth decay is responsible or not.
- Hole in the tooth – If your tooth suddenly develops a hole, it’s because the enamel has been worn away.
Cavities and Sweets
Sweet foods are more likely to cause pain or sensitivity if you have cavities. This is because they tend to be sticky, and will cling to your teeth. The bacteria in your mouth are then able to produce more acid, which works its way into cavities and irritates the exposed nerves in your teeth.
When to Visit Your Dentist
If you think you have a cavity, then schedule an appointment with your dentist. Usually by the time cavities are noticeable, it’s too late to treat them at home and a dentist is required for proper treatment. During your visit, you’ll probably have x-rays taken so that your dentist can determine the extent of the damage to your tooth. A filling can usually repair the tooth, but if the damage is too severe, then a crown or root canal may be necessary. Your dentist will offer recommendations based on the amount of tooth decay.
Regular visits to your dentist are important even if you don’t think you have any cavities. Professional cleanings remove build up on your teeth that you can’t reach with a toothbrush and floss. Your dentist is often able to spot cavities sooner than you can while they are still small and easier to treat. They can also give you advice about how to care for your teeth and foods to eat less often to reduce your risk of cavities.
How to Prevent Cavities
As with many things, preventing cavities is easier than treating them. The following tips can help you reduce your risk of developing cavities:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day for two minutes each time
- Clean between your teeth once a day with dental floss or interdental cleaners
- Limit snacks, especially those that are sugary or sticky
- Eat nutritionally balanced meals
- Visit your dentist twice a year for cleanings and exams
- Ask your dentist about dental sealants, which can provide a protective coating for your teeth
Developing a cavity can cause pain and sensitivity, as well as damage to your tooth. Thankfully, with proper oral care and regular visits to your dentist, you can often prevent cavities or catch them early when they are easier to treat.
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