You’re minding your own business and having dinner when you bite down on a piece of food and a sudden jolt of pain runs through your tooth. You start panicking. “Do I have a cavity?”
It can be tempting to frantically search the Internet for a diagnosis before you schedule an appointment with your dentist. Or, even worse, try to ignore the pain for as long as possible.
Well, as a Vancouver general dentist and founder of Nest, I can tell you that tooth pain is an indication that something is wrong. The sooner you have your tooth checked out and treated, the easier, more affordable and less invasive treatment will be.
While only a dentist can tell you definitively if you have a cavity and how extensive it is, there are some telltale signs that it’s time for a dental visit. In this post, I’ll be covering what tooth decay is, how to tell if you have a cavity, how the problem is treated and a few tips for cavity prevention.
What is Tooth Decay?
Tooth decay is damage to your enamel, which is the hard, outer layer of your teeth. Here’s how it all goes down:
- The bacteria in your mouth feed on carbohydrates. So, whenever you have food or a beverage that contains sugars or starches, the bacteria start snacking.
- As the bacteria feed, they release acids. The acid can attack your enamel, leaching minerals from it.
- The acids also mix with your saliva, food debris and bacteria to create a sticky bacterial film, called plaque. Plaque clings to your teeth and when it’s not brushed away, the acids cause even more mineral loss.
- Over time, in the face of continuous acid attacks, the enamel erodes and weakens. Eventually, a hole can form in the tooth. This hole is called a cavity and, at this stage, the damage is irreversible and has to be repaired by your dentist.
How to Tell if You Have a Cavity
Usually, when tooth decay is in its earliest stages, there are no signs or symptoms, which highlights the importance of routine dental check-ups and cleanings. Using diagnostic tools, I can detect decay before you start exhibiting symptoms and, sometimes, stop it from progressing or even reverse it.
Once decay advances, signs of a cavity can include:
- Sensitivity to Hot, Cold, Acidic or Sweet Foods and Drinks
One of the early signs of a cavity is lingering sensitivity to hot and cold food and drinks. This is because, as the enamel erodes, the underlying dentin becomes exposed. Dentin contains really tiny tubules. Cold, heat and acidity can reach the nerves through the tubules, causing sensitivity that lasts for seconds to minutes after eating or drinking. While less common, some patients with tooth decay also have sensitivity to sweets.
- Tooth Pain
A toothache is among the telltale signs of a cavity. You might have persistent, throbbing tooth pain or occasional, dull pain. Humans are notoriously bad at identifying which tooth is causing them pain, so it can even feel like several teeth hurt, making it hard for you to pinpoint the problem tooth.
When a toothache keeps you up at night and the pain is excruciating and unrelenting, it’s usually an indication that the decay has reached the pulp inside of your tooth. The pulp contains living tissues and nerves.
Sometimes, this severe tooth pain will suddenly disappear. This doesn’t mean that your tooth healed itself or you were somehow able to get rid of your cavity. Instead, the nerve may have died. Unfortunately, the infection will still be going strong and can spread to the gums, other teeth and jawbone, so dental care is critical to saving the tooth.
Very early tooth decay can show up as white spots on your teeth. While white spots can be caused by excessive fluoride in childhood, they can also indicate areas of decalcification, or lost minerals. As the cavity gets worse, it may turn into a brown or black area on your tooth. It’s always a good idea to have discoloration evaluated.
- Pain When Biting
General pain isn’t the only uncomfortable sign of a cavity. You might also have sharp pain when biting down, chewing or applying pressure to your tooth. This is particularly common when you have tooth decay in a molar.
- A Hole
As I said before, a cavity is a hole in your tooth. So, if you see a hole in your tooth or feel it with your tongue, you have a cavity that needs to be filled before it causes more serious complications. Once the tooth gets really weak, it can break or fracture.
- Bad Breath or a Bad Taste in Your Mouth
A cavity often traps food debris, causing bacteria to go on a feeding frenzy. This can leave you with a bad odor or taste in your mouth.
- Swollen and/or Bleeding Gums
A cavity by your gumline may irritate the gum tissue. As the cavity progresses, you might notice swelling in your gums and bleeding when you brush and floss. These are also signs of gingivitis. In either case, you’ll want to visit the dentist as soon as you can.
Dental Cavity Treatment
It’s not fun at all to hear that you have a cavity. Patients sometimes feel bad and think the dentist will judge them. First, the issue is incredibly common. According to the Canadian Health Measures Survey, 96% of adults have a history of cavities. Basically, everyone you know has had a cavity except for that magical 4%.
As for judgment, I’m on your team, as I’m sure most other dentists are! I want you to have a healthy smile. Cavities and other oral health problems happen. At Nest Dental on Fraser Street in Vancouver, there is zero judgment. My team and I will meet you where you’re at and help you get your smile back on track.
Once I’ve had the chance to examine you, I’ll chat with you about your treatment options. Cavity or tooth decay treatment will depend on how advanced the decay is and what’s going on with your oral health. In general, treatment could include:
- Remineralization – For very early tooth decay, sometimes, remineralizing the tooth with a treatment like a fluoride varnish can replace the minerals lost to those cavity-causing acids and reverse the decay.
- Fillings – Once tooth decay has progressed into a cavity, the most common treatment is a dental filling. I’ll numb the tooth, remove the decay, clean the area and fill in the hole with a tooth-coloured filling. The filling will return your tooth to its regular shape and function and keep it protected.
- Dental Crowns – For large cavities or teeth that are severely weakened and can’t support a filing, a dental crown could be needed. A crown is a covering that fits over your entire tooth to the gumline. It gives it back its strength, appearance and function.
While there are a few different types of dental crowns, a porcelain crown looks most like a natural tooth. After removing decay and shaping the tooth to fit under the crown, I’ll take digital impressions of your tooth and send them to the lab. In the meantime, I’ll place a temporary crown. Once your crown is custom-fabricated, I’ll remove the temporary and bond the permanent crown to your tooth.
- Root Canal Treatment – If decay reaches the living tissue inside of the tooth, called the pulp, a root canal may be necessary. Root canal therapy is performed to remove the infected or inflamed pulp in an effort to save your tooth. During the procedure, I’ll clean and disinfect the affected area, fill the space with specialized dental materials and seal it off with a temporary filling. Usually, in order to protect and strengthen the tooth, I’ll recommend a dental crown after a root canal.
- Tooth Extraction – If the decay and damage is so severe that your tooth can’t be restored, then it will need to be extracted to prevent the infection from spreading. I always make every effort to save your tooth, but if it’s not possible and an extraction is needed, don’t panic.
At Nest, I perform atraumatic tooth extractions. This is a special technique designed to minimize trauma to the surrounding tissue and bone. You’ll be numb and won’t feel a thing. We also offer sedation dentistry if you’re anxious. Once the tooth has been extracted, replacing it will prevent the other teeth from shifting into the empty space. Whether you’re interested in a partial denture, a dental bridge or a dental implant, I’ve got you covered.
Cavity Prevention Tips
People sometimes want to know how to get rid of cavities. Unfortunately, once you have a cavity, it has to be repaired and there aren’t any home remedies that will make it disappear. The good news is though, cavities are preventable. Here are some tried-and-true ways to stop tooth decay in its tracks:
- Brush your teeth twice a day using a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Brush for two full minutes each session.
- Floss once daily.
- Add a mouthwash to the mix. Swishing with it is helpful for whisking away any plaque or food you missed.
- Banish dry mouth! Saliva is important for remineralizing the teeth and washing away the bad stuff. When you don’t produce enough of it, it’s called dry mouth, or xerostomia. Dry mouth can be caused by medications, medical conditions and dehydration. Be sure to drink enough water and if you do have a condition or take a medication that causes dry mouth, chat with me about ways to combat it.
- Eat a nutritious, well-rounded diet and enjoy sugars and starches in moderation. Fermentable carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, pretzels, crackers, candy, cookies, chips, soda and cake, as well as sticky foods like dried fruit and fruit snacks are the biggest cavity culprits, so keep these to a minimum if you can. The best foods for your teeth are whole foods that are low in carbs, eaten quickly and don’t get stuck in your teeth.
- Limit how often you snack. Snacking produces less saliva than eating a meal, making it more likely that food bits will stay in your mouth for bacteria to feed on. Also, every time you eat or drink, you start the clock on acid attacks over. So it’s best to minimize the number of snacks you have and enjoy treats as part of a larger meal. When you do snack, go for foods that help remineralize the teeth like yogurt, cheese and nuts.
- Chew sugarless gum after meals if you’re not able to brush. Chewing gum stimulates saliva and as we’ve established, saliva is an oral health superstar.
- Visit your Vancouver dentist for a cleaning and check-up every six months. Aside from brushing and flossing, keeping up with routine dental care is one of the most important things you can do for your smile. During exams, I can see any areas of your hygiene routine that could use improvement and make personalized recommendations to help you keep cavities at bay. If an issue is spotted, I can treat it early on while it’s reversible or, at least, easily fixed.
As for dental cleanings, these aren’t just about making your teeth shine. We use special tools to remove hardened plaque, called tartar, that you can’t remove with just a toothbrush and dental floss. Getting rid of stubborn tartar reduces your risk of tooth decay.
Looking for Cavity Treatment in Vancouver?
If you suspect you have a cavity or haven’t been to the dentist in a while and need an exam, schedule a visit at Nest Dental. If you’re experiencing a severe toothache or signs of an infection, I’m a Vancouver emergency dentist too. Call us and a friendly team member will get you into our office and out of pain as soon as possible.
At Nest, my team and I are reinventing the entire dental experience. You’ll find cozy vibes and comprehensive care at our newly renovated, beautiful Fraser Street studio. With private treatment suites, a range of technology and a custom entertainment experience at each visit, think of appointments as a spa day for your smile.