Cavities and tooth decay: causes, symptoms, and treatment

20 October · 6 minutes

Cavities, also referred to as dental caries, are more common than you might think. The WHO (World Health Organization) estimates that nearly 2 billion people suffer from cavities globally. Unfortunately tooth decay is a rather typical oral disease and we recommend doing your part in protecting your teeth..

In this article we’ll answer all your questions: what is a cavity? What causes them? And what signs should you look out for? We’ll also tell you how to prevent tooth decay and the future health problems they can cause.

What is a cavity or tooth decay?

Before we dive in, we’ll start with the basics: what is a cavity and what is tooth decay? Cavities are the result of the progressive deterioration of enamel and dentin by plaque germs. Tooth decay also known as dental caries, refers to both the process of the tooth decaying and the rot itself.

The tooth decay process begins with the demineralization of the tooth's enamel surface where plaque accumulates on the teeth. Plaque excretes an acid powerful enough to demineralize the enamel surface and reach the surface of the dentin which is porous and absorbent.

Once the dental cavities are below the surface, they are considered advanced stage. Late stage cavities are deeper, harder to stop, and tend to be more painful.

What causes cavities and tooth decay?

What causes tooth decay and cavities differs from patient to patient. But generally the reasons fall into one of the following three categories.

Genetic factors

Unfortunately, some people have a higher risk of developing dental cavities due to genetic factors. These individuals tend to be more prone to tooth decay because they have:

  • Weak teeth: Some people naturally have weaker teeth with fine, poorly mineralized enamel, which is usually caused by genetics. Patients with weaker enamel tend to have teeth that are more sensitive to plaque acids and therefore are more likely to suffer from cavities.
  • Acidic saliva: The pH of saliva varies from person to person based on genetics and on their diet. Those with a more acidic pH than average are more prone to develop dental caries.
  • Immunosuppressant medication: While it might not always be genetic, some people may require immunosuppressant medication to treat medical conditions. When they take this medicine, their defenses are lower, making it easier for dental cavities to appear.

Patients experiencing dental pain in the dentist’s office

An unhealthy diet

Another factor that causes tooth decay is an unhealthy or especially sugary diet. People who often eat cariogenic foods - highly acidic or very sugary - are more at risk of developing dental caries. Sugar and tooth decay are known to be linked.

Consuming sugary foods and beverages excessively is one of the main causes of dental cavities along with poor hygiene. When we eat a lot of sugary treats throughout the day, we don’t allow time for the saliva to neutralize the acidic sugars, which in turn causes tooth decay.

On top of reducing sugar intake, it’s equally important to focus on improving the types of sugars we consume. For example, it’s best to avoid sticky forms of sugar, like in candy, as they adhere to the tooth’s service and are more difficult to remove.

Poor oral hygiene

Knowing that plaque is the root cause of cavities, it makes sense that poor dental hygiene is directly linked to tooth decay.

Whether it’s not brushing your teeth enough or doing it incorrectly, teeth that haven’t been sufficiently brushed are the usual suspects when it comes to tooth decay.

We recommend developing a good brushing technique and brushing regularly. Using dental floss is also important as it reaches areas that the toothbrush can not.

Signs and symptoms of cavities

The signs and symptoms of cavities depend on the severity of the tooth decay and where it’s located. It’s important to monitor your oral health closely, so if a cavity were to appear, it could be treated right away. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should consult your dentist:

  • Pain or sensitivity when the tooth is exposed to hot, cold, or sweet food is typically one of the first indicators of appearing dental caries.
  • Spots on the teeth, whether white or black are symptoms of tooth decay. The darker in color, the more advanced the decay is.
  • A hole in the tooth can also be a sign of a cavity. Sometimes you can see them just by looking at the teeth and other times not, if they‚Äôre between the teeth, for example.
  • Pain, throbbing, and stinging are also all symptoms of severe or advanced cavities.
Patient hold small mirror while experiencing dental pain

Cavity and tooth decay stages

Based on the patient's symptoms, we can determine the approximate stage of tooth decay and cavity. The symptoms we look at usually have to do with the patient’s level of discomfort.

  • If the cavity is stimulated and it causes discomfort spontaneously (it lasts less than a minute), it‚Äôs possible that the cavity is reversible.
  • If the discomfort lasts more than a minute, it‚Äôs an indication that the cavity has already developed.
  • If the discomfort persists, without stimulation, it may mean that the cavity is at an advanced stage. With this level of discomfort, it‚Äôs most likely that the tooth decay has already reached the nerve. If this is the case for you, you‚Äôll need to go get an X-ray.

Cavity and tooth decay side effects

There can be serious consequences and side effects of tooth decay and cavities, especially if they go untreated. Whenever you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, you must consult your dentist to treat the problem as soon as possible.

  • If the cavity wasn‚Äôt treated before it reached the dentin, then it will require a filling. When non-natural filling materials are used, you‚Äôll have to go to the dentist‚Äôs office more frequently for review.
  • A huge side effect of tooth decay is it actually traps more plaque and in turns causes even more cavities.
  • One of the most frequent cavity side effects is an uncomfortable sensitivity to heat, cold, and sugary or acidic foods.
  • If the cavities reach the dental nerve, it may be necessary to perform a root canal treatment, also referred to as endodontics.
  • In advanced stage tooth decay, a side effect is necrosis. Which means the tooth dies and has to be removed.
  • Lastly, radiating pain in the jaw and ear are also side effects of cavities.
Dentist checks patient’s mouth for cavities and tooth decay

Can tooth decay cause diseases or health problems?

In addition to the side effects and consequences mentioned above, tooth decay that has been left untreated for too long can cause other health problems and diseases.

If the cavity attacks the root and pulp of the tooth, for example, it can eventually penetrate it and infect nearby tissues. When this happens, it results in an extremely painful infection that can even cause abscesses (accumulation of pus).

In the most extreme cases where the tooth decay has made its way all the way down to the lower jaw, the infection can cross the floor of the mouth and spread to other parts of the body through blood vessels. This could eventually lead to endocarditis, or the inflammation of the heart chambers and valves.

How to prevent cavities and tooth decay

Practice good oral hygiene

When it comes to understanding how to prevent cavities and tooth decay, it starts with practicing good oral hygiene. Like all habits, dental hygiene habits are best adopted when we’re young. Cavities don’t discriminate based on age, even baby teeth can decay.

We encourage parents to check their children’s teeth regularly and to remain vigilant as their children grow up and learn to brush on their own. Professionals recommend brushing your teeth twice a day for 2 minutes, or better yet, after every meal to prevent cavities.

Mother brushes her teeth with her daughter in the bathroom

Use products with fluoride

Fluoride reduces the bacteria that causes cavities and it also strengthens teeth. That’s why it’s added to a lot of dental products. So, as a measure to prevent cavities, we recommend choosing toothpastes and mouthwashes containing fluoride.

Have a healthy diet

As we previously mentioned, when it comes to having a healthy diet and preventing cavities, sugar is the enemy.

Take extra caution with sodas and juices that contain added sugars and with pastries, gummies, and other sweet treats that are packed with sticky sugars.

See your dentist regularly

And of course, one of the most important ways of preventing tooth decay: making regular trips to your dentist’s office. You should be seeing your dentist at least twice a year for an oral exam and dental cleaning. But depending on the condition of your teeth, it might be better to double down on those trips and go more than every six months.

Tooth decay treatments: How to get rid of cavities

How to get rid of cavities depends on the stage of tooth decay. Early stage cavities can simply be treated with a good cleaning and some fluoride, while more advanced dental caries could require one of several different procedures. Below we’ve laid out the most common treatments for tooth decay.

Dentists and dental hygienist clean patients mouth to prevent dental caries

Cavity treatment with fillings

Before getting into how cavity fillings work, it’s important to understand what they are. A filling is essentially just as it sounds, the dentist is filling in the hole or cavity, left by the acidic plaque. In cleaning out and filling these holes. The dentist is restoring the shape and function of the tooth to as close as the original as possible.

When a cavity filling is needed, the dentist will notify the patient and remind them that it’ll require the use of the local anesthesia. The steps of the filling process are as follows:

  1. The professional will use either a rotary or manual instrument to remove the damaged tissue.
  2. They will then decontaminate and clean the tooth’s surface.
  3. Next, they’ll use an adhesive technique to glue the filling to the tooth.
  4. Finally, they’ll insert the seal. This should fix the shape and appearance of the tooth. The filling contains composite resins that form a chemical bond to the tooth, returning its mechanical, or chewing function. These composites come in different colors to match the shade of the patient’s enamel and appear as natural as possible.


If a simple filling won’t do the job and a more serious approach is required, the dentist will use a crown. A crown is basically a cover that will shield the tooth after the decayed part has been removed.

Root canals

In many cases, once the nerve is affected, the pulp cannot be recovered. This is when root canals come in. Root canals are a last resort and only used on severely damaged teeth.

Cavities and orthodontics

Can braces cause tooth decay and cavities?

A lot of people have the idea that braces can cause cavities and tooth decay, but the truth is, it’s not actually the braces that are the cause. Fixed orthodontic devices like braces make it more difficult to reach all areas of the teeth when brushing and flossing, and areas of the teeth that are left uncleaned, especially in the back by the molars, are the perfect spot for cavities to form.

On the other hand, if you choose to go with removable orthodontics like Impress invisible aligners, the risk of tooth decay decreases tremendously because the difficulty in cleaning disappears. Since the aligners can be removed, brushing can go on as usual.

Regardless of the type of orthodontic device you have, it’s important to pay special attention to the accumulation of plaque. It’s vital to maintain a good dental hygiene routine to prevent the development of new cavities.

Close up of patient putting in invisible aligner

Can you get braces or aligners if you have cavities?

A lot of people wonder if you can get braces or aligners if you have cavities. And at the end of the day, the dental health of our patients is always the priority, so if they have any cavities that have not been treated previously, our recommendation will always be to treat the tooth decay before starting treatment. We want to avoid the cavities worsening and becoming an advanced stage during treatment and causing more serious problems.

Cavity fillings are one of the most common pre-orthodontic treatments. In an Impress initial consultation, the patients will have a 360¬į X-ray taken of their mouth as well as a complete oral exam. This will help us locate any cavities and detect any other issues and address them accordingly.

If you or someone you know is considering orthodontic treatment, get in touch with us to learn about our treatments. Find out what Impress can do for your smile.

You can reach us by calling 888.490.1421 or by booking your initial consultation online. Discover what Impress can do for your smile at your nearest clinic. We can‚Äôt wait to see you smile!

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Frequently asked questions about cavities

What are the best pain relief options for cavities?

The reality is if you’re experiencing pain from cavities, the best way to relieve the pain is to have it treated. If the pain is noticeable and bothering you, the tooth decay is most likely in an advanced stage and the only way to stop the pain once and for all is to seek treatment.

Can you reverse a cavity?

Cavities can be reversed if they are still in the early stages, meaning that the plaque has only slightly demineralized the enamel. If this is the case, the cavity can be reversed with a dental cleaning and fluoride.

Are cavities contagious?

The main bacteria that causes cavities is Streptococcus Mutans and it can be transmitted between humans, so you need to be careful with seemingly harmless practices such as drinking off the same glass.

How long can you leave a cavity untreated?

Cavities should never be left untreated. Untreated cavities can lead to more serious health problems. If you have any symptoms of tooth decay, you should see your dentist.

Do cavities cause bad breath?

Yes they do. Bad breath is a consequence of cavities.


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