What does a dental cavity look like?

Brian Maurer

August 24, 2021

5 minute read

What does a dental cavity look like?

Dental cavities are one of the most common diseases that affect Americans. In fact, the only disease that is more prevalent is the common cold.

According to the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition examination survey, 91% of adults 20-64 have cavities. The rate of cavities in adults has declined since the 1970s, likely due to more dental education and access to dental care.

However, cavities are still a big problem. The good news is that when caught early, cavities are simple to treat and will not drastically affect your oral or overall health. The key phrase in that sentence, however, is "when caught early." If you allow cavities to flourish, you will experience significant damage, dental disease, even tooth loss.

That's why it's essential to be vigilant in the fight against tooth decay.

Statistically speaking, you've probably already had at least one cavity. But do you actually know what a cavity is or how to spot one? No? Then this article is for you. Let's explore!

What is a cavity?

We all have a substance called plaque that is constantly forming on our teeth. This sticky substance is a biofilm, produced by some of the bacteria that live in your mouth. These bacteria eat sugar, so whenever you eat or drink anything with sugar, the bacteria thrive. They grow in number and form a community--that’s plaque.

Like all life forms, bacteria excrete waste (yuck). These sugar-eating bad actors excrete acids that attack your tooth enamel. The sticky plaque protects the bacteria on your teeth, while they proceed to destroy your tooth enamel.

That is, unless you brush and floss your teeth twice a day like your dentist tells you to. Doing so will disrupt the plaque and prevent the bacteria from building up enough to cause damage.

There are also defenses you can use to kill bacteria, build up and reinforce your tooth enamel. Eating a low-sugar, balanced diet encourages good bacteria that protect your enamel. Fluoride  kills bacteria and helps strengthen enamel, that's why many dentists recommend using fluoridated toothpaste. Remineralizing toothpastes contain ingredients like hydroxyapatite, a calcium compound that helps strengthen tooth enamel. 

However, if the bad bacteria thrive and the destruction is allowed to go on, eventually, you'll get a hole in your tooth — known as a cavity.

What does a cavity look like?

The start of a cavity will often appear as tiny white spots on your teeth. This is a result of demineralization as the acids in the bacteria are slowly chipping away your enamel.

Usually, at this stage, all that is needed is to step up your dental care routine. If you don't already, you should try using a fluoridated or calcium compound toothpaste to help rebuild your enamel.

As the cavity worsens, the spots can turn brown or black. Sometimes these brown spots are soft if you poke them with a toothpick--that is not a good sign!  If the cavity is allowed to flourish, you will develop a visible hole in your tooth. At this point, you'll need dental intervention to stop the decay. 

Your dentist will drill out the decay and fill the hole with something like amalgam (silver), gold, or tooth-colored composite fillings that look more like your tooth. The filling prevents bacteria from hanging out in the hole and helps to fortify the tooth. Severely decayed teeth may require a crown, a protective cap that fits over what is left of the tooth after the dentist removes the decayed part.

What does a cavity feel like?

At first, it's unlikely that you'll feel anything. After all, tooth enamel doesn't have nerve endings.

But as the decay works its way down through the layers of your teeth, you may start to notice that something is wrong. Common symptoms include:

  •  A toothache or pain when biting and chewing
  • Sensitivity to hot, cold or sweet food and drink
  • Bad breath
  • A bad taste in your mouth
  • A brown spot on the tooth that is soft to the touch
  • Being able to feel a hole in your tooth with your tongue

Unfortunately, by the time you can feel a cavity, the cavity is already getting serious. This is why it's essential to be vigilant, even if you don't have any toothaches or other symptoms.

How to know if you have a cavity?

Cavities often form in places where your teeth are touching one another. It is harder to clean out tiny crevices to get out all the plaque harboring the bacteria in your mouth. This is one reason why even those who follow a strict dental health care routine can still develop cavities.

Visit the dentist

Because cavities like to develop in shadowy places, it's virtually impossible to see your own cavities looking in a mirror. That is another reason why regular dental visits are such an essential part of your healthcare routine. 

With their direct view, big light and those little mirrors, your dentist and dental hygienist can check your teeth for signs of cavities appearing. Dental x-rays help them find cavities in hard-to-see areas. The teeth show up white on the x-ray, and cavities will appear as darker spots.

Send a sample to Bristle!

Trillions of tiny microbes live in your mouth. Think about that the next time you want to kiss somebody!

Just like gut bacteria, oral microbes can be either good or bad. You will generally always have a balance of both good and bad bacteria in your mouth.

When the bacteria become imbalanced, it is easier for cavities to form. When harmful bacteria are flourishing, they will spread, and you'll have more of them.

Keeping this in mind, you can send a small saliva sample to us here at Bristle for testing. We'll examine your oral microbiome. Then, we'll provide science-backed feedback based on what we find.

Though perhaps less conventional than what you're used to, testing your microbiome is better than visiting a dentist in some cases. A dentist can only see a cavity after it has already begun to cause damage. However, we can analyze your microbiome and detect when the bacteria level begins to rise in your mouth — before it has time to cause too much damage.

Smile, it's time to be healthy

The mouth is the gateway to your entire body. Maintaining a healthy mouth is about more than simply having a nice smile. It also helps prevent systemic diseases like cancer, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and stroke.

All you have to do is send us a sample, and we'll do the rest. We can't fix major problems, but we can alleviate your concerns and advise you when it becomes necessary to see a dental professional.

Try it today!


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