Senior couple laughing and eating cotton candy
Badge field

Dental Cavities: What You Should Know

Published date field Last Updated:
Published date field Last Updated:

Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Want to prevent cavities? Not sure how to start? Don’t worry, a bright, healthy smile is possible, and we can help you set and keep a great oral health care routine to keep cavities away. If you do have a cavity, or the beginning of one, it’s a great opportunity to keep an eye on certain habits and brush up on some new ones.

What are cavities?

Cavities, also called tooth decay or dental caries (the scientific name) are holes that develop on the hard surface of your teeth. The process of decay occurs over time:

  1. Bacteria feed off sugar and carbohydrates (starches) in the foods we eat, producing acids.
  2. If the acids stay on your tooth and are not brushed off, they dissolve minerals in the hard enamel.
  3. Over time, the enamel erodes or develops pits. They are too small to see at first. But they get larger over time.
  4. If the decayed enamel is left uncontrolled, then the decay process continues, forming a cavity.

I have a cavity, now what?

You may be able to turn back time when it comes to certain stages of cavity formation. White spots on the surface of your teeth are one of the first early warning signs that decay is there, but it hasn’t broken through the enamel. Fluorides and other prevention methods can help a tooth in early stages of decay to repair itself (remineralize).

Once cavities get worse and there is a break in the enamel, only a dentist can repair the tooth. Then, the standard treatment for a cavity is to remove the decay and restore the tooth with a filling or recommended treatment.

If the decay is contained, then the dentist will remove the decay and replace it with a filling. If the decay is not contained, then the dentist will remove the decay and recommend the type of treatment that is needed to restore the tooth.

What are the different types of cavities?

Wherever a cavity forms, whether at the root of the tooth or on an exposed part of the enamel, the development of the cavity is the same. However, the placement of the cavity can determine how fast it forms and other factors can impact your risk.

  1. Coronal cavities: These are the most common type of cavities and occur in both children and adults. They are located on the chewing or biting surfaces of the teeth.
  2. Root cavities: As the name suggests, this type of cavity forms at the root of the teeth as the acids eat away at the cementum (the material that covers tooth roots and is softer, making it more at risk for decay). As we age, our gums can recede, exposing the enamel on the root surface that maybe vulnerable to decay.
  3. Recurrent decay: Decay that reoccurs on a tooth that can form around existing fillings and crowns if plaque is left uncontrolled.
  4. Interproximal cavities: These cavities occur between the teeth, especially the back teeth which are harder to clean.

How do I stop cavities in their tracks?

The good news: cavities are preventable! Set your mouth and teeth up for success with these simple oral hygiene habits and tips:

  • Brush at least twice a day and floss daily to remove plaque from between teeth and below the gumline.
  • Use antibacterial mouth rinses to reduce the levels of bacteria that cause cavities.
  • Have regular dental checkups. Preventive care can help stop problems from occurring and keep minor problems from becoming major ones.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that limits starchy or sugary foods. When you do eat these foods, try to eat them with your meal instead of as a snack to minimize the number of times that your teeth are exposed to the acids in these foods.
  • Chewing gum that contains xylitol helps to decrease bacterial growth. Unlike sugar, xylitol is not a food source for bacteria.
  • Use dental products that contain fluoride, including toothpaste and mouth rinse.
  • Make sure that your children's drinking water is fluoridated. If your water supply does not contain fluoride, your dentist or pediatrician may prescribe fluoride supplements.
  • Ask your dentist about sealants for yourself, and for children to protect teeth from decay. Dentist hygienists can place dental sealants on teeth that have no cavities.

Where do cavities form?

It makes sense that the hard-to-clean surfaces of your teeth are the parts most likely to develop cavities. These include:

  • Cracks, pits or grooves in the back teeth
  • Between teeth
  • Around dental fillings or bridgework
  • Near the gumline

Take extra care when cleaning these areas to prevent plaque build-up.

What are some ways dentist check for cavities?

Remember, the formation of cavities is a process that occurs over time, which also means you have opportunity to reverse the process of tooth decay if it’s caught early. Here are some ways your dentist will look for cavities during an exam:

  • Probing your tooth with a tool called an explorer to look for pits or areas of weakened enamel.
  • Checking X-rays of your teeth can show newly forming decay, particularly between teeth.
  • Applying non-toxic liquid dye or stain that can detect tooth decay.
  • Using a special type of laser can also detect very early tooth decay.

Are cavities painful?

The early stages of decay are usually painless. Only regular dental examinations and X-rays (or other cavity-detecting devices) can show early signs of decay. If your teeth become sensitive to drinking hot or cold drinks, or chewing very sweet foods, this could be a sign of a cavity and you should contact your dentist.

What happens if I don’t treat my cavity?

Always seek out a professional recommendation from your dentist. If left untreated, the tooth decay will continue and can destroy the tooth. Additionally, having one cavity, could possibly lead to more for several reasons:

  • The same uncontrolled oral care and dietary habits that led to the decay of your teeth will cause more decay.
  • Bacteria tend to stick to fillings and other restorations that are rough and broken down more than to smooth teeth, so those areas will be more likely to have new caries.
  • Cracks or gaps in the fillings may allow bacteria and food to enter the tooth, leading to decay progressing beneath the filling.

Preventing cavities begins with good oral hygiene habits. Remember to brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day. Floss every day to prevent food and dental plaque from building up and visit your dentist every six months.


Want more tips and offers sent directly to your inbox?

Sign up now

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

Mobile Top Image
Was this article helpful?

Thank you for submitting your feedback!

If you’d like a response, Contact Us.

Mobile Bottom Image