More than half of Americans will experience tooth decay before they reach the age of 20. The good news is that tooth decay is typically preventable through a combination of good oral care which includes fluoride products, a balanced diet, and routine dental checkups. If the bacteria responsible for causing cavities are removed on a daily basis, the decay process can be minimized.

Why Do Cavities Hurt?

The nerves inside of our teeth are extremely sensitive.

Cavities are active bacterial infections that cause break down in your tooth structure. When decay invades the outer layer of your tooth enamel, it reaches the softer layer underneath called dentin. The dentin is closer to the nerves. Eating certain types of foods or exposing your teeth to varying temperatures can trigger sensitivity or pain when your cavity is deeper.

Unfortunately, pain is typically not a good tool for measuring the size of a cavity, as symptoms vary from one person to the next. That’s why dental checkups are so important.

Do Cavities Always Hurt?

Not all cavities hurt or cause discomfort. It’s not uncommon for someone with a small cavity to experience severe sensitivity and pain, while someone with a large cavity with an abscess feels no discomfort whatsoever.

Cavities may be completely asymptomatic (no symptoms), which is why it’s beneficial to have your teeth routinely assessed by a dentist.

Common Cavity Symptoms

Common cavity signs and symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to sweet foods or drinks
  • Pain when biting down
  • Temperature sensitivity
  • A rough area on your tooth
  • Food getting trapped between or inside of teeth

Symptoms of tooth decay can vary, depending on where the cavity is located and the extent of damage present. Small cavities between teeth may go completely unnoticed without a dental exam and X-rays.

Signs or Symptoms You Might Have a Cavity

Sometimes early cavities are hard to identify. There may be a “twinge” here or there while you’re eating or drinking.

If you are experiencing bad breath, tooth discoloration, or general tooth sensitivity, chances are that one of your teeth may have a cavity.

Severe Cavity Symptoms & Complications

Cavities are best treated while they are small before they expand deeper into the tooth. If the symptoms of decay go unnoticed, the tooth can experience a bacterial infection which can lead to an abscess. Tooth symptoms can range from completely asymptomatic to severe pain.

Cavity Pain Relief

Since cavities are active bacterial infections inside of your tooth, the only permanent solution to your dental pain is to visit a dentist. By placing a modest filling while the decay is small, you can potentially avoid the need for something like a root canal and crown. Unfortunately, waiting to see a dentist will only provide a cavity with ample time to spread into the nerve of the tooth, which can result in an abscess.

Cavity Treatment at the Dentist: What to Expect

Since cavity symptoms may be completely undetectable, routine dental visits can help you identify cavities and treat them while they’re small. People with healthy teeth and gums still benefit from a check-up with their dentist every six months. Your dentist will use special tools or X-rays to screen for decay.

If you do have an active cavity, your dentist will want to intercept the decay as early as possible. Most small cavities are treated with a conservative dental filling. This action will prevent the cavity from spreading into the nerve of your tooth. But if the decay goes undetected for too long, a root canal may be necessary to save your tooth.

Cavities are caused by the bacteria in plaque. When areas of plaque rest on tooth enamel for extended periods, the bacteria produce acids that etch away at tooth structure. Eventually, a cavity will develop.

Through early intervention and daily plaque removal, the tooth decay process can be stopped — and in some cases reversed. Following a daily oral hygiene routine and rinsing with a fluoride-containing, such as LISTERINE® TOTAL CARE®, is an effective way to help remineralize your teeth.

For more information around cavity prevention, explore How to Prevent Cavities & Tooth Decay.