How To Know If You Have A Cavity: Signs And Symptoms

Cavities can be stressful. And if they go unnoticed or untreated, the tooth decay can worsen and cause more serious dental health issues. Knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a cavity can help you stay ahead of any potential problems and keep your smile healthy. This article tells you everything you need to know about how to spot one in your mouth.

7 min readHow to Know if You Have a Cavity: Signs and Symptoms

Nobody wants to have a cavity. Filling a cavity can be expensive and painful—two factors leading to a stressful dental situation.

But according to the latest CDC data, an alarming percentage of adolescents (those aged 12 to 19) have had cavities in their permanent teeth (57%). This figure rises to a staggering 90% for adults 20 and above. One in every four adults between the ages of 20 and 64 currently has at least one cavity.

The good news is this: Cavities won't kill you. In fact, they're so common that dentists have perfected methods for detecting and treating them.

The key is to stay on top of your oral health by learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of cavities, so they can be caught quickly before they get out of hand. In this article, we'll give you a rundown on identifying and treating cavities.

Possible Signs Of A Cavity

Cavities—also referred to as dental caries—are holes in the enamel of your tooth. They form when plaque buildup on your teeth causes acid to eat away at and weaken the enamel.

The first step to preventing cavities is understanding the possible signs of one. If you notice any of the following, it's cause for further investigation.

Hot And Cold Sensitivity

Studies suggest that as many as 45 million Americans suffer from tooth sensitivity. If you experience extreme sensitivity when drinking hot or cold beverages, it isn't an immediate sign of a cavity.

But if you notice that the sensitivity persists and you don't have any other underlying dental issues, it might be a sign of tooth decay. And if your sensitivity is new and seemingly "out of nowhere," it's best to bring it up with your dentist.

If you're having trouble with tooth sensitivity, you can try switching to a special toothpaste designed to reduce it. If it still doesn't get better, your dentist will need to take a closer look.

Visible Holes Or Pits In Your Teeth

If you have holes in your teeth, this is usually a dead giveaway that you have a cavity. But the hole may or may not be visible to the naked eye.

Sometimes, the hole is so small that it can only be spotted with an x-ray. Other times, it may look like black spots on your teeth (a telltale sign of tooth decay).

Regardless of its size, the opening in your teeth can cause pain, sensitivity, and other noticeable issues that will worsen as the cavity gets bigger. If you notice this problem, booking an appointment with your dentist right away is critical.

Pain When Biting Down

Whether or not you can see a hole in your tooth, pain when biting down could indicate the presence of one.

It's important to note that not all cavities cause pain. But, if you feel a sharp or dull ache when biting down on something—especially with cold foods and drinks—it could be an indication of tooth decay.

Remember, tooth pain is sometimes normal. Unfortunately, it's a part of life. But if your tooth pain persists beyond one or two days, a cavity is certainly possible.

Lingering Sensitivity To Sweets

When we eat sweet foods, our teeth may be more sensitive than usual. They can cause additional sensitivity because of the acids they contain that erode the enamel on our teeth.

The enamel is a protective layer that helps to protect our teeth from damage. As it wears away, it can leave teeth more vulnerable to bacteria and other decay-causing agents.

Sweets are also among the most common foods that cause cavities. If you eat them often and you begin to notice increased sensitivity, there's a good chance you found the source and the culprit of your discomfort.

Chronic Toothache

Chronic pain in your teeth can mean a few things. Some people notice their teeth hurt after a dental cleaning. And others have similar problems due to bruxism or other habits.

If your teeth begin to hurt for an extended period, however, it could be a sign of a cavity. Cavities usually don't cause pain in the early stages, but as the decay progresses, you may start to feel discomfort that worsens over time.

Staining On Teeth

Discoloration might be just that: discoloration. Especially if you whiten your teeth sometimes, yellowing teeth might indicate they are just reverting to their natural color.

More often, discoloration results from habits that damage your teeth, like smoking, eating too much sugar, or drinking acidic beverages. It's also a common problem for people who don't brush their teeth as much as they should.

Many of the things that cause tooth discoloration can also cause cavities, and in some cases, you may have both problems. If you notice your teeth becoming discolored, you might have another problem under the fold.

What Increases Your Risk Of Developing Cavities?

To understand how certain factors can impact your risk of dental caries, it's important to understand what the oral cavity is.

When food particles and bacteria accumulate in different areas of your oral cavity (i.e., your mouth), they can encourage plaque buildup. As plaque feeds on sugars and starches in the food you eat, it produces acids that attack tooth enamel.

The longer these acids remain on your teeth, the more damage they can do. If you don't brush and floss regularly, your risk of developing cavities increases considerably.

Here are a few factors that increase the likelihood of cavities forming:

Poor Brushing

There are two different ways poor brushing can affect your risk of cavities:

  • Not brushing enough. Brushing fewer than twice daily gives plaque and bacteria the opportunity to build up and cause damage.
  • Not brushing correctly. If your toothbrush is too hard, it can wear away enamel and make your teeth more susceptible to cavities. And if you don't brush long enough or easy enough around each tooth, you're leaving areas of plaque unaddressed.

The key to good brushing is to focus on each tooth and make sure you brush the entire surface, including in between your teeth. When doing so, hold your brush at a 45-degree angle and use gentle, circular motions.

Inadequate Flossing

Brushing twice daily is an essential part of maintaining your oral health, but it's not enough on its own. Flossing removes food particles and plaque from areas of your teeth a toothbrush can't reach—the tight spots between your teeth.

Flossing after each meal is best, especially if you frequently eat foods like candy or chips that are high in sugar. If you don't floss regularly, these sugars and starches can linger on your teeth and create an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive.

Poor Diet

There is a two-way relationship between diet and oral hygiene: The food choices you make directly impact the health of your gum tissue and surrounding teeth, and a poor diet can make it harder to protect your oral health. Concurrently, the same unhealthy foods and drinks damage your teeth on their surface.

Foods that are high in sugar or acidic can weaken tooth enamel and increase your risk of developing cavities. Additionally, sugary snacks often contain sticky substances that linger on the surface of your teeth long after you eat them.

Foods high in sugar, like candy and soda, also increase your risk by lowering the pH in your mouth, allowing bacteria to grow and thrive.

A Lack Of Fluoride

Fluoride is the main ingredient in anticavity toothpaste and is an important component of maintaining healthy teeth. Fluoride works by strengthening tooth enamel, making it more resistant to acids that destroy the enamel and can lead to cavities. It also helps to reduce plaque buildup and inhibit bacterial growth in your mouth.

Other options are available, but if you don't use fluoride-based toothpaste or mouthwash, you are putting yourself at a higher risk for cavities.

Some people also believe teeth whitening is a substitute for a dental health routine, but whiter teeth don’t necessarily mean healthier ones. People with beautiful, white teeth can also develop dental caries.

Dry Mouth

Dry mouth (clinically referred to as xerostomia) is a condition in which the amount of saliva produced by your salivary glands decreases. Saliva plays an important role in keeping your mouth clean and protecting it from oral infections, such as cavities.

While there are several causes of dry mouth, one of the most common is taking medications that reduce saliva production.

Conditions like diabetes can also cause xerostomia, as can certain medical treatments, like chemotherapy. If you smoke cigarettes, use marijuana, or drink alcohol, your risk of cavities as a result of dry mouth is also higher.

Eating Disorders

You might not consider eating disorders as a risk factor for cavities, but they can be. Eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia can cause rapid changes in pH levels within the mouth.

Bulimia, for example, can cause acid reflux that damages tooth enamel. And the act of throwing up frequently erodes tooth enamel, which eventually leads to cavities.

Binge eating disorders like compulsive overeating can also increase your risk of cavities by providing a constant source of carbohydrates, which breaks down into sugar and feeds the bacteria in your mouth.

Acid Reflux Disease

In the same way, eating disorders can cause acid reflux, so too can acid reflux disease (formally referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD).

The acid from the stomach can also make its way into your throat and mouth during an episode of reflux, which can damage your teeth as well. In some cases, acid reflux can even lower the long-term pH in your mouth, making it easier for bacteria to thrive and increasing the risk of cavities.

If left untreated, acid reflux can cause faster enamel erosion and an unhealthy balance of bacteria in your mouth.

Mental Health Problems

Some research has linked anxiety and depression to oral health problems. And stress can increase your chances of developing cavities.

Although mental health doesn't directly impact your oral health, it can affect how well you take care of yourself. People who are dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue can often find it harder to maintain critical but seemingly minuscule habits like oral hygiene.

Proper treatment and management of your respective mental health problem can go a long way toward helping you maintain your oral health.

The Bottom Line

If you have a cavity, you probably won't notice right away. Many go undetected for several months, which is why routine dental visits are so vital.

Unfortunately, you can't fix a cavity at home. But you can make certain changes to your lifestyle to reduce your risk of developing one in the first place.

Brush and floss twice a day with a fluoride-based toothpaste, use an antibacterial mouth rinse, and limit your intake of sugary or acidic foods. Beyond direct dental care, you should also take proactive measures to treat your other physical and mental health conditions.

By understanding the risk factors associated with cavities and taking proactive measures, you can help protect your teeth from decay.