Let’s Discuss How a Cavity is Formed

Last updated Friday, December 16th, 2022

How a Cavity is Formed

Plenty of people have gone in for a regular dental checkup only to hear those dreaded words: “You have a cavity.” It can conjure up images of scary-looking tools and surgical implements, not to mention medical bills. But what exactly is a cavity – and how can they be avoided?

What is a Cavity in a Tooth?

Cavities are areas in the hard surface of your teeth that are permanently damaged, then develop into openings or holes. Also called tooth decay, cavities are one of the world’s most common health problems.

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Symptoms of a Cavity

Symptoms of cavities can vary depending on their severity and location. A small cavity may not cause any symptoms, but larger or more progressed decay can cause symptoms such as toothache; tooth sensitivity; pain when eating sweet, hot, or cold foods; or pain when you bite down. There may also be visible signs like holes or pits in the teeth or brown, black, or white staining on a tooth surface.

The Process of a Healthy Tooth to a Decaying Tooth

There are multiple steps to the decay process in teeth. First, dental plaque, a clear sticky film, forms on the surface of the teeth. It may harden into tartar, also called calculus. This makes it much harder to remove from teeth without the help of a dentist.

Next, the acids present in plaque wear away at your tooth enamel, causing tiny openings or holes. Once through the enamel, the acids and any bacteria that are present can reach the next layer in your teeth, called dentin.

Dentin is softer than enamel and easier for acid to wear through. It also has tubes that connect directly to the root of the tooth, which can cause sensitivity when damaged.

Finally, the bacteria and acid continue to eat their way through the tooth, moving on to the inner tooth material, or pulp. This is where nerves and blood vessels are found. The pulp will become swollen and irritated. However, there is no place for the swelling to expand, so the nerve in the tooth is compressed. This is what causes pain, which can extend all the way to the bone.

What Causes a Cavity?

Dental plaque, the first step of decay, is caused by eating a lot of sugars or starches and not cleaning your teeth well afterwards. Bacteria feed on the sugars and create the plaque.

Teeth that are difficult to reach, like molars, often form cavities because it is difficult to clean them. In the same vein, teeth with grooves are likely to form cavities. Certain foods and drinks that cling to your teeth are more likely to cause decay than foods that can easily be washed away by saliva or drinking water. If you snack on these foods frequently throughout the day, it gives the bacteria more food and more time to produce plaque.

How to Treat a Tooth Cavity?

A number of different options are available for treatment of tooth decay. A few common ones are listed below, but your dentist will be able to recommend the best fit for you and explain in more detail.


Also called restorations, fillings are one of the most common treatment options for small cavities. They can be made of multiple different materials, like composite resin or dental amalgam.


Dental crowns, also called tooth caps, fit over the top of an existing damaged tooth to protect and restore the surface of the tooth. The damaged part of the tooth is filed down to remove the decay, and then a new material is cemented onto the existing tooth. The new material could be made from metal or gold, porcelain, ceramic, or resin.

Root Canals

If decay has reached the pulp of the tooth, a root canal may be needed to save it. In this procedure, the diseased tooth pulp is removed and replaced with a filling. In some cases, medication may be put into the root canal.


If a tooth cannot be saved, it may need to be removed through extraction. This can be done by a dentist or oral surgeon.

How to Avoid Cavities?

One of the easiest steps to take to prevent cavities is to properly brush your teeth. Using a soft-bristled brush, gently brush every surface of each tooth. This removes the sugars that bacteria feed on and can also remove plaque.

This should be done at least twice a day, ideally after every meal. Using fluoride-containing toothpaste will also help prevent cavities. Fluoride prevents tooth decay and is added to many public water supplies, but usually is not found in bottled water.

Fluoride-containing toothpastes and mouthwashes are an easy way to make sure your teeth are getting enough fluoride. Avoid frequent snacking, as this provides more food for the bacteria that cause tooth decay, as well as making it inconvenient to brush your teeth after every time you eat.

Most importantly, visit your dentist regularly. Most people should get a dental checkup every six months. Your dentist will examine your teeth and spot any problems early, meaning decay won’t have a chance to get bad enough to require a crown, root canal, or extraction. Regular oral exams and cleaning will also help prevent decay from forming.

Your dentist may recommend different types of treatments for your teeth, such as fluoride or antibacterial treatments. These can help ensure you get enough fluoride and remove harmful bacteria from your mouth. Another common option is dental sealants, which are protective coatings over the chewing surfaces of the back teeth. They seal the grooves that tend to collect food, protecting the tooth enamel from acid and bacteria. Dental sealants are commonly recommended for school-age children. They need to be checked regularly and replaced every few years, but remain a good option for preventing decay.

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