man with sensitive tooth pain holding toothbrush and touching his cheek

What Does a Cavity Feel Like?

We all may have experienced a cavity in our lifetime. They’re one of the most common dental maladies.1 At the first indication of a cavity, it’s worth visiting a dental professional so they can perform a comprehensive examination, fill the cavity if indicated, and treat any other symptoms you may have.

But what does a cavity feel like? Knowing the symptoms of a cavity can help you stay on top of your dental health and potentially avoid more complex dental treatments for the future.

How does a cavity form?

A cavity is a damaged area of the tooth that penetrates the hard enamel on your teeth and can reach into the nerves if left untreated.1 They form as holes in your teeth, and can be caused by a combination of plaque buildup, starchy sugary foods, and poor oral hygiene.2 Since enamel is the strong outside layer on your teeth, bacterial acids that break down or dissolve parts of this enamel will result in cavities.

Cavities are common: in fact, more than 80% of Americans will have at least one cavity by the time they enter their 30s.2

How can I tell if I might have a cavity?

Early cavities are painless; it isn't until they until they become larger when pain can range anywhere from mildly annoying to nearly unbearable.2 If you have a cavity, you may find that your teeth are more sensitive and will hurt from common activities, such as brushing your teeth, drinking hot or cold beverages, or even daily eating and chewing.3 If you believe you have a cavity or are experiencing tooth pain, contact your dentist for a comprehensive examination and diagnosis.

The first symptom that you might notice will likely be tooth sensitivity, which may be triggered when you eat or drink something cold or hot.3 This sensitivity might affect more than one tooth or may be localized to only one tooth.2 When cavities are untreated, they continue to grow and toothaches will arise, especially while eating hard food, and discoloration of the teeth may occur, appearing as white, yellow, or brown spots or even holes.2

Further symptoms may include:

  • bad breath1
  • aching, throbbing stinging, pounding or burning pain
  • pain in the jaw, ears, or gums affecting a single tooth
  • swelling in the gums or face
  • nausea and fever

How to treat cavities after you’ve been diagnosed with one

There are many options to treat a cavity, based on their severity. Switching to a cavity-focused toothpaste with fluoride, such as Pronamel Active Shield, can strengthen the enamel on your teeth to prevent future cavities.

If you already have a cavity, your dentist may recommend the following treatments:4

  • Dental fillings: the cavity will be drilled out and filled with a material to restore its shape and function.
  • Root canals: this procedure removes infected nerve tissue and saves the tooth.5
  • Crowns: this removes a tooth’s outer layer and replaces it with a cap to cover the top of the tooth.
  • Tooth extraction: if the cavity is too severe, a dentist may remove the tooth (and offer options to replace it).
  • Antibiotics: this will eliminate any bacteria already within a cavity.
  • Orthodontic care: crowded teeth may impact an individual's ability to properly clean their teeth which may contribute to cavities. A dentist will recommend braces to correct tooth alignment.

Cavities can be painful and complicated to treat, but you’re not alone: they happen to a wide swath of Americans. To prevent cavities, it’s important to maintain a routine of regular toothbrushing and flossing, and to schedule regular visits with your dentist. With dental programs like Altogether Dental, it’s cheaper and even more convenient than ever.

Source Citations:

  1. Cavities/tooth decay. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 5/31/2023. 
  2. Cavities. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 5/31/2023.
  3. Sensitive Teeth. MouthHealthy. Accessed 1/3/2024.
  4. Cavities: What are They and How Do We Prevent Them? MouthHealthy. Accessed 11/21/2023.
  5. Root Canals. MouthHealthy. Accessed 11/21/2023.
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