Dental cavities are a common problem that can affect people of all ages. When you consume something that contains starch or sugar, bacteria present in your mouth use it to produce acids. These acids then start to erode enamel, the hard covering of your teeth. Minerals like calcium and phosphate in your saliva as well as fluoride from toothpaste or water can replace minerals lost during an acid attack and help in the repair of enamel. However, frequent exposure to acids can affect the enamel of your teeth to such an extent that more minerals are lost than replaced. Eventually, a cavity or hole begins to develop.1
The areas between your teeth and the surfaces that you use to bite are more likely to decay since food particles and plaque – a film of decay-causing bacteria, acid, and food particles – can get stuck here.2 Teeth can also decay around the edges of fillings as bacteria build up in crevices where the filling has weakened and fractured. This is especially so in older adults who did not have the benefit of fluoride while they were growing up.3
How do you recognize the signs of a cavity and get dental help in time? Sometimes cavities don’t cause any symptoms until the decay has spread to the inner layers of teeth. However, in other cases, you may be able to see signs like stain or pit on the teeth, sensitivity to sweet, cold, or tart foods, bad breath, an unpleasant taste in your mouth, and toothache. Here’s a detailed look.
5 Signs And Symptoms Of Cavities
1. Pits And Stains
A white spot on your tooth can be an early sign of a cavity.
In the beginning, as a cavity starts to develop, a white spot can occur where minerals have been lost from your tooth enamel. This is an early sign of tooth decay – enamel can repair itself at this point using minerals from saliva or fluoride. As more minerals are lost and enamel is destroyed, you may notice brown, gray, or black spots on the affected tooth.4 5
2. Tooth Sensitivity
When a cavity reaches the layer beneath the enamel, known as dentin, the affected tooth may become sensitive. This happens especially when you have sweets, acidic foods, or hot foods. A decay in the dentin is serious and needs medical attention without delay.
3. Bad Breath
The same bacteria that cause tooth decay can also release an unpleasant smell when they break down food particles trapped in your mouth. However, you may not notice this smell yourself and other people may hesitate to tell you that you have bad breath. A simple test can help you out here.
To test for bad breath, use the back of your tongue to lick your wrist and wait till the saliva dries. If your wrist now has an unpleasant smell, your breath probably smells too.
Do keep in mind though that if you have bad breath, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have tooth decay. Factors like crash dieting and medical conditions like diabetes and infections in your throat, lungs, or nose can also cause bad breath.6
4. An Unpleasant Taste
If you have a cavity, you may sometimes get an unpleasant taste in your mouth.7 This foul taste is again because of the bacteria and the byproducts they release when breaking down food.
Tooth decay and cavities can lead to pain in the affected tooth, the areas around it, or even your jaws. However, this depends on how far the cavity has spread.
Stage 1: Your teeth are covered by a hard, protective enamel which doesn’t have nerves or blood vessels and a cavity here doesn’t cause pain. So pain will not be a cavity symptom in the initial stages of decay.
If you feel the pain only when eating cold, hot, or sweet foods, decay is in the second layer. If you feel a pain every time you bite on food, the decay has possibly spread to the innermost layer.
Stage 2: When the decay spreads to the dentin, you may experience sensitivity and pain. At first, it may be only when you have cold, hot, or sweet foods. However, as the decay spreads further into the innermost layer of the tooth – the pulp which is in the center and made up of soft tissue containing nerves and blood vessels, pain can become more persistent. At this stage, pain can occur even when your tooth is not in contact with cold, hot, or sweet foods.
Stage 3: If the pulp becomes damaged and dies, the pain may temporarily go away. You may then experience pain when you bite or when you press your tooth with your tongue or finger because the root of the tooth has become inflamed or infected. Infection can eventually result in a constant pain that worsens when you bite.8
Things To know About Toothaches Due To Cavities
- The pain can be constant or it may come and go.
- The pain may worsen when you eat, especially when you’re having something that’s cold or hot. Or it could intensify at night when you lie down.
- You may experience severe pain or it could be mild in nature.
- It can sometimes be difficult to determine exactly where the pain is coming from. For instance, when there’s a cavity in your lower molar tooth, it can sometimes feel as though your ear is aching. And when your upper teeth are affected, it can feel like the pain is coming from your sinuses, which are cavities near your nasal passages. The portion of your jaw that’s close to the affected tooth may also feel sore.
Do keep in mind that if your toothache lasts for more than a couple of days, you should get medical treatment as soon as possible. Delaying treatment can worsen your condition and lead to a constant throbbing pain.9
|↑1, ↑4||The Tooth Decay Process: How to Reverse It and Avoid a Cavity. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑2||Dental Decay. Oral Health Foundation.|
|↑3||Decay. American Dental Association.|
|↑5, ↑7||Tooth decay. National Health Service.|
|↑6||Causes of bad breath. National Health Service.|
|↑8||Albert, Richard K. The Merck manual home health handbook. Edited by Robert S. Porter, Justin L. Kaplan, and Barbara P. Homeier. Merck & Company, 2009.|
|↑9||Toothache. National Health Service.|