What Does A Cavity Look Like? (And Does It Hurt?)

What Does A Cavity Look Like? (And Does It Hurt?)

Published 15/06/2021

Last Reviewed 28/03/2024

It can be daunting to hear from your dentist that you have a tooth cavity. Even so, it is a common dental problem and many people are likely to experience it at some point in life, especially if they neglect their oral hygiene.

So what does a cavity look like? What are the early signs so you can catch it in time and have your dentist treat it before it turns into anything more serious?

Continue reading and all your questions and concerns regarding tooth cavity will be answered by the end of this post.

What Is A Cavity?

A cavity, also called tooth decay or caries, is a permanently damaged area of the enamel that creates holes or openings, exposing your inner tooth. If it’s left untreated, the inner tooth can suffer damage and can result in infections and severe toothache. Tooth loss may also result in worst cases. It can be caused by a variety of factors, but once it occurs, you have to visit a dentist so they can address it before it gets larger and affects the deeper layers of your teeth.

What Causes a Cavity?

There can be several factors that can contribute to the development of a tooth cavity. Cavity on back teeth, or molars and premolars, is much more common than cavity on front tooth. This is because your back teeth have many grooves where food particles can get stuck. If the food items aren’t cleared away through proper brushing and flossing, they will cling to your teeth and result in decay.

Snacking and not brushing the teeth frequently enough also encourages mouth bacteria. These bacteria produce acids that can wear down your teeth and lead to cavities. Teenagers and children are at a higher risk of cavities since they frequently consume foods like candy, cookies, cake, sugar without inadequate brushing. These foods aren’t easily washed away with saliva and can lead to cavities.

Fluoride is a natural mineral that helps prevent cavities and even reverse the earliest signs of tooth decay if used regularly. Brushing regularly with AO Pro Toothpaste White Care, enriched with antioxidants and containing fluoride, can help prevent cavities and ensure a healthy smile.

What Does A Cavity Look Like?

Simply put, a cavity is a hole in the tooth. However, these holes aren’t always visible easily. The tiniest hole, that can go unnoticed by the naked eye, can be enough to let pathogens inside your tooth and cause problems. So what does a cavity look like on the teeth? If you can catch these signs early, you can consult a dentist and have these fixed in time.

●     Tooth Discoloration

Cavities often appear as discoloration on a portion of your tooth. If a portion of your tooth doesn’t match the color of the rest of the teeth, or there’s a darkened area forming on the tooth’s surface, take it as an indication of a developing cavity.

●     Black Spots on Teeth

If you see black spot appearing on the tooth’s surface, don’t miss the sign. The black spot is often accompanied by a tiny hole, which may or may not be visible.

●     Holes in Teeth

Sometimes the holes in teeth are visible. It might even be a large hole or misshapen portion on your teeth that you can feel with your tongue. If the hole or damage is visible, it’s a clear indication that you need to see the dentist soon.

How To Know If You Have Cavity?

Other than the visible signs that suggest a cavity, there are other symptoms as well. Some of the common symptoms that suggest you might be developing a cavity include:

●     Toothache

Toothaches are one of the first signs you’ll notice if you have a cavity. The pain results from the dentin and tooth nerves that are exposed as a result of the decay. Sometimes, you may even experience sharp, throbbing pain, especially when eating.

●     Headache

The building pain and pressure in your teeth can also result in headaches. These recurring headaches are a result of muscular tension in the jaw. Sometimes, you may even experience pain or pressure on the ears or the back of your head.

●     Tooth Sensitivity

When the holes in your teeth expose the dentin, tooth sensitivities will result. You’ll find your teeth more sensitive to temperature. Other than hot and cold foods, you’ll also find discomfort eating sweet foods.

●     Pain While Biting

If you don’t experience constant toothache, the pain may only appear when biting. Tooth decay and resulting bacterial infection result in swelling of the surrounding tissues. When you eat, you put extra pressure on these swollen tissues, resulting in pain.

●     Swelling On Gums

Red or swollen gums also suggest tooth decay. The swelling is often close to the tooth line. In worst cases, the gums might even bleed, especially while brushing.

●     Bad Breath

Bad breath doesn’t always result from the food you eat. Sometimes, it suggests more serious dental problems such as cavities or gum disease. If the mouth odors persist even after brushing teeth, you should seek advice from a dentist.

Benefits of Early Cavity Treatment

No matter which medical condition you encounter, early diagnosis and treatment is always better than neglecting the symptoms, prolonging the disease and letting the condition worsen. Tooth cavities are no different. If you catch the symptoms at an early stage and visit the dentist in time, chances are high that the problem will be resolved with simply a filling.

If you ignore the symptoms and delay treatment, cavities can lead to extensive tooth damage. Once the inner tooth becomes infected, the dentist will have to treat it with a root canal to save the tooth. In worst cases, if the treatment is delayed for too long, tooth loss may result.

Cavity vs Stain

So you already know what a cavity looks like. Even so, it’s often hard to tell the difference between a cavity and a tooth stain. Is it possible that you might be mistaking cavity for a tooth stain?

A discoloration on the surface of the teeth may be simply a tooth stain or something worse - a cavity. So how do you know what you’re up against? There are some clear-cut differences.
    • If the discoloration affects the entire tooth, sometimes even the surrounding teeth, it’s most often a stain. If it’s localized to a single point on your tooth and is brown, black or grey in color, it’s more likely a cavity that you’re dealing with.
    • A cavity often feels sticky if you push your tongue up against it, unlike a stain.
    • A cavity is often also accompanied by other symptoms, such as toothaches, tooth sensitivities, and holes in the tooth, while a tooth stain is just discoloration of the teeth.
    • Unlike cavities that are only black, brown or grey, stains can be of different colors, depending on what causes it. Brown stains result from smoking, while red or purple stains can result from wine. Aging can cause yellow stains.

Where Can You Get a Cavity?

Cavities are most common on back teeth. These include molars and premolars. The back teeth have pits and crannies that can easily collect food and are hard to reach with brush and floss. While the front teeth are smooth and easier to clean, they can also develop cavities. Any type of tooth can develop a cavity. In fact, a cavity between teeth is also a possibility.

●     Cavity On Front Tooth

Cavity on front tooth is more common with children who are accustomed to bottle use. This type of cavity, also called baby bottle tooth decay, is more likely when children are given sweetened drinks before bedtime. However, adults aren’t immune to cavity on front tooth either. Consuming sugary foods and drinks and neglecting oral hygiene can result in the development of cavities on any teeth and will require a visit to the dentist to have it fixed.

●     Cavity Between Teeth

Cavity between teeth, or interproximal cavity, is similar to any other cavity. It appears when enamel is washed away from the side walls of the teeth and bacteria settles on the surfaces, causing decay. If caught early, cavity between teeth can be fixed with recalcification with fluoride gel or filling. In the worst cases, you’ll need a root canal or tooth extraction.

How to Get Rid of Cavities?

Once you identify the symptoms of a cavity, the only way to get rid of it is to visit the dentist. Several treatment options are available, depending on the extent and type of cavity. These may include:

●     Fluoride Treatments:

The doctor may prescribe you a fluoride treatment using specialized products that contain more fluoride than regular toothpastes.

●     Tooth Fillings

Filling is the most common treatment option when cavity penetrates deeper beyond the enamel.

●     Crown

If there's extensive tooth decay, the dentist may install a crown after treating the decayed area.

●     Root Canal

If the decay reaches the inside of the tooth, or the pulp, you will need a root canal to treat it.

●     Tooth Extraction

The worst case is the one in which the tooth becomes so severely decayed that it will need to be extracted.

Do Cavity Fillings Hurt?

The dentist will numb the area that’s to be treated with a numbing gel such as Lidocaine or Benzocaine. These local anaesthetics will be injected at the area so you feel a slight sting but that’s all. Once the area is numbed, the dentist will start the filling procedure which typically lasts 20 to 30 minutes. You may feel slight discomfort but there will be no pain during the entire duration of the procedure. Once the anesthetic wears down after the procedure, you may feel slight discomfort or pain. However, the pain is mild and will usually only last for a week or so.

How To Prevent A Cavity Or Treat ‘Pre-Cavities’

Once the cavity reaches your dentin, it cannot be fixed at home. You will need to visit a dentist to treat it. However, very early stages or ‘pre-cavities’ can be treated with the following home remedies. The same habits will also prevent cavities from occurring in the first place.
    • Intake of Vitamin D improves dental health.
    • Brush regularly using a fluoride toothpaste.
    • Cut down on sugary foods.
    • Brush your teeth after eating sugary foods.
    • Licorice root tea can help prevent cavities.
    • Visit your dentist for regular checkups so that any dental problems can be caught early.

Cavity FAQs

Some questions we hear frequently about Cavities:

How Long Do Cavity Fillings Last?

Dental fillings typically last for 10 years or longer. Since fillings are made from different materials, their durability will also be determined by the material used for your cavity filling. Composite fillings are the most common types and can last for more than 10 years if the patient maintains good oral health. Gold fillings have an average lifespan of 20 years or more, while ceramic fillings last for 15 years or more.

Amalgam fillings are the least expensive types and can last for over 15 years. However, since there's a risk of toxicity with these, avoid amalgam fillings if you're pregnant, under 6 years of age, have kidney problems or are allergic to mercury. Besides the material, your diet and dental hygiene also affect the life of fillings. Grinding your teeth while sleeping or injury to the tooth may reduce the lifespan of the filling.

How to Keep a Cavity From Getting Worse?

Once a cavity develops, there isn't a way to get rid of it. If you delay the necessary treatment, it will progress to the pulp chamber and eventually become a root canal. So you must schedule a visit to the dentist as soon as you find symptoms of a cavity. However, until you get a filling, there are some things that can prevent the cavity from getting worse.
    • Brush regularly, taking special care to remove any food particles around the cavity.
    • Use fluoride toothpaste since it fights bacteria. During the initial stages of cavity development, fluoride treatment can slow down tooth decay.
    • Avoid consuming sugary foods.
    • Rinse your mouth with salt water several times a day.

Does Coffee Cause Cavities?

Regular intake of coffee can increase your chances of getting a cavity. Though it does not directly induce cavities, coffee is an acidic beverage that lowers the pH levels inside your mouth cavity, creating a favorable environment for cavity-causing bacterias. These pathogens multiply and are more active at lower pH levels, and can easily attack your enamel. Once the enamel begins to erode, there are higher chances of cavities and tooth decay.

The addition of creamer and sugar to the coffee will further speed up the growth of bacteria. If you don't want to quit drinking coffee altogether, drink in moderation only. Having one or two cups a day and ensuring good dental hygiene alongside can help prevent cavities.

Does Smoking Cause Cavities?

Smoking doesn't just damage your overall health. Your oral health is also at high risk. Besides the risks of developing oral cancer and gum disease, people who smoke, or consume tobacco, are at a higher rate of developing cavities. Smoking can cause large cavities to build around the gum line, which may promote infections and weaken your teeth. Weak teeth can easily be injured, which typically requires expensive repairs.

Chewing tobacco is the worst form of tobacco use in terms of cavities. People who chew tobacco are at a higher risk of developing cavities and other dental problems than those who use tobacco in other forms.

What Foods Cause Cavities?

Your eating habits have a major role to play in the development of cavities. Other than maintaining good oral hygiene, cavities can be prevented if you avoid certain foods:
    • Acidic foods like grapefruit, lemon, oranges, coffee, and pickles can cause cavities if consumed in high quantities.
    • Sugary foods boost bacterial activity, causing acids to form inside the mouth cavity and increase the risk for cavities.
    • Starchy foods like potato chips tend to stick to your teeth, causing plaque build-up, ultimately leading to cavities if you don’t brush and floss regularly.
    • Soda drinks and alcohol also promote cavities.
    • Sticky, sugary foods like candies and dry fruits tend to stick to your teeth for longer. Since they are sugary, they provide food for bacteria, developing acids in your mouth to erode enamel.

Cavities - Conclusion

What does a cavity look like? Now you know the signs to watch out for and what to expect when you visit a dentist to treat your cavity. Maintain your oral hygiene, and if you still sense something wrong, don’t delay having it checked by a dentist.