middle aged man holding his cheek next to the words tooth decay, learn how to spot the symptoms

How Do I Know If I Have a Cavity?

Let’s talk about cavities – what they are, why we get them, when to treat them, and how to help ensure your best dental health with preventive care.

While pain is often an indicator of tooth decay, it’s not the only symptom that appears. Be mindful of the early warnings and don’t delay dental care if you have any of these signs:

  • Sensitivity to hot and cold that lingers and doesn’t go away
  • Sensitivity to sweet foods or drinks
  • A toothache that is on or around one or more teeth
  • Pain or discomfort when you bite down or while chewing
  • Discoloration, white spots, or staining on a tooth
  • A small hole or mark on your tooth

Sometimes people mistakenly believe that if the pain goes away, the problem has gone away. Unfortunately, that is not true with a cavity. It usually means that the decay has impacted the tooth’s nerve. The time to treat a cavity is as early as possible so that you’re treating a little issue now instead of a much larger, more painful, costlier issue later!

What is a cavity?

A cavity is basically tooth decay and it isn’t just a pesky dental issue, it’s a multi-stage process that, if left unchecked, can significantly damage your smile and your overall health. Cavities are one of the most common issues patients face.  According to the CDC, 80% of Americans will have had at least one cavity by age 34. Leaving a cavity untreated can lead to tooth loss, infection, and other more serious conditions.

Understanding the Stages of Tooth Decay

Early detection is key, so knowing the stages of tooth decay and their signs can help you take timely action.

Stage 1: Demineralization

  • The enamel starts losing minerals due to bacteria and acid.
  • No pain or visible signs, but regular dental checkups can detect it.

Stage 2: Enamel Decay

  • The enamel breaks down, forming a white chalky spot before darkening to become a brown or black cavity.
  • You may experience mild tooth sensitivity to hot, cold, or sweet and/or an occasional sharp pain when chewing.

Stage 3: Dentin Decay

  • The cavity reaches the soft dentin layer beneath the enamel.
  • Sharp pain becomes more frequent and persistent and hot/cold/sweet triggers may increase in severity.

Stage 4: Pulpitis (Inflammation of the dental pulp)

  • The cavity reaches the tooth’s inner pulp (where nerves and blood vessels live).
  • Severe pain and swelling with a potential for an abscess. This stage often requires a root canal treatment or a tooth extraction.

If left untreated at this point, the infection can spread beyond the tooth to the surrounding bone and tissues. Possible complications of untreated pulpitis include a periapical abscess (a painful, pus-filled pocket that forms at the root tip and impacts the surrounding bone and tissue), a jawbone infection (which can cause bone loss and damage to other teeth), and even systemic health risks (as bacteria can enter the bloodstream at this point).

What causes cavities and how to prevent them

While one of the biggest dental health issues, it’s also one of the most common. Think of cavities as tiny holes in your teeth caused by acid-producing bacteria. 

While cavities are often caused by lifestyle habits (frequent snacking, not practicing good dental hygiene, drinking soda, smoking, etc.) the reality is that “many factors can affect the processes of demineralization and remineralization including bacterial flora, dietary and oral hygiene behaviors, saliva composition, flow rate, and pH buffering capacity, positional and morphological features of the teeth, fluoride exposures, and socioeconomic factors including access to oral health care.” [source]

The good news is you can play an active role in the prevention of cavities.

  • Cut back on sugar! Limit sugary snacks and drinks and rinse your mouth after indulging.
  • Brush twice, floss once. Every day! It helps remove plaque buildup.
  • Schedule regular dental cleanings and checkups. Twice a year.

Think you might have a cavity and need a dentist? We’re here to help. To schedule an appointment, just click the button below, use the contact form, or give us a call 336-560-3636. We’ll make sure you’re seen as soon as possible.

We can't wait to join you
on your dental health journey!
Schedule Appointment
Odyssey Dental of Summerfield
7506 Summerfield Road
Summerfield, NC 27358