During your regular dental cleaning and examination, you may be surprised to learn that you have one or more cavities that require dental fillings. However, it’s not necessarily because you’ve done anything wrong. On the contrary, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 90% of adults over the age of 20 have had at least one cavity. But it is important that you have your cavities filled. Your dentist may offer one of several types of fillings. So which material is best? Read on for what to know about different types of dental filling.

What Causes Cavities?

If you’re told you have a cavity or multiple cavities, you may be caught off-guard. This is because cavities can develop slowly and may not produce any symptoms. Bacteria is to blame for the development of cavities.

In response to sugary, starchy snacks, bacteria in the mouth turns into acid. This acid then eats away at the enamel of the teeth causing tooth decay. So, eating a lot of sugary snacks can cause cavities.

Cavities can also form if you do not brush and floss properly and consistently. The American Dental Association recommends twice daily brushing for a full two minutes each time. In addition, you should be flossing your teeth with dental floss or a water flosser once a day. Failing to brush and floss as recommended allows bacteria to remain on the teeth, leading to decay and cavities.

Your likelihood to develop cavities may also have a genetic component. If your teeth have especially deep crevices and grooves where bacteria accumulate, you may be predisposed to developing cavities. Dental sealants may be recommended by your dentist to prevent decay.

Finally, if your teeth are crowded, or overlap, the likelihood increases that bacteria can become trapped between teeth and cause cavities. To correct problems with crowding, your dentist may recommend orthodontic treatment such as aligning your teeth with Invisalign.

How Are Cavities Diagnosed?

Visible cavities will be detected during a routine dental cleaning and examination. But technological advances have made it possible for dentists to identify decay not visible to the naked eye.

Digital dental x-rays can illuminate decay within a tooth that may not be seen during a visual examination of the mouth. Likewise, painless laser fluorescence cavity wands used by your dentist can illuminate invisible changes in the teeth before a cavity makes it way to the surface of the teeth.

Early in development, dental cavities (also known as caries) are unlikely to create symptoms. But as cavities grow in width or depth, you may begin to experience signs and symptoms of tooth decay including:

  • Ongoing toothache
  • Pain when chewing or biting into food
  • Sensitivity to hot, cold, or sweet foods
  • Spontaneous tooth pain
  • Staining on your tooth surface
  • Swelling around a tooth

Types of Dental Fillings

A dental filling is a restorative dental treatment that returns a tooth to health after suffering from decay. Irrespective of the type of filling that you get, the purpose of the filling it to fill in the gaps and holes in the tooth caused by decay. Fillings may be made of one of several materials.

Composite Fillings (Tooth Colored Fillings)

Composite fillings are made of tooth-colored composite (very fine glass particle and plastic) resin. Composite fillings are among the least visible type of fillings. Benefits of composite fillings include a natural appearance. These fillings can be completed in a single visit, sometimes during a routine check-up and cleaning. Composite filings may need to be replaced sooner than other types of fillings. They are strong, but not quite as strong as amalgam fillings.

Porcelain Ceramic Fillings

Fillings made of porcelain ceramic are more expensive than other types of fillings. Porcelain fillings may take multiple dental visits. Porcelain fillings are stain-resistant, and durable, though less durable that amalgam fillings.

Silver or Gold Amalgam Fillings

Silver and gold fillings were once the standard materials used to fill cavities. Both silver and gold fillings are incredibly durable often lasting 15 years or longer. Amalgam fillings may require your dentist to remove more of your tooth than composite fillings. Silver fillings may be less expensive than composite fillings, but gold fillings may be more expensive.

Why is a Filling Necessary?

Dental fillings are necessary to prevent decay from spreading. If left untreated, cavities can rapidly become more serious dental problems. If the decay reaches the pulp of the tooth, you will experience increased pain. The decay may also infect the pulp of the tooth requiring a root canal. In worst cases, an infected tooth may cause a pus-filled sac known as a dental abscess to form in the mouth. Dental abscesses are extremely painful, as the infection can spread up your cheeks, and down your neck.

Allowing a cavity to go untreated also increases your risk of tooth loss. Although a root canal can often save damaged teeth, in some cases the natural tooth may not be salvageable, and require extraction. If this happens, you’ll need to replace the tooth with a restorative treatment such as a dental bridge or dental implant. Both replacement options are much costlier than treating a cavity with a filling.