When your dentist tells you have a cavity, you really do need a filling to protect the tooth from further decay.
In fact, if left unfilled, a cavity will only get worse and the decay might ultimately lead to bone loss. Fortunately, the tooth-filling procedure is nearly painless thanks to advances in dentistry. So there's no reason to avoid getting a filling if your dentist recommends it.
One of the first things to expect when getting a filling is a conversation with your dentist about what type of material should be used. There are many more choices of filling material available today than in the past, and your choice may depend on a combination of appearance, cost and function.
Some options for filling materials include:
- Gold. Gold fillings are sturdy and non-corrosive; they can last up to 15 years. Many people like the look of gold fillings, but they can cost more than other types.
- Amalgam. Silver-colored amalgam fillings are a mixture of metals including silver, copper, tin and mercury. They're the most researched dental material and are strong, durable, and inexpensive, but many people don't like the look of the silver.
- Composite. Fillings made of a tooth-colored mixtures of glass and resin, composite can match the color of your teeth, but they are not as durable as metal and may need to be replaced more frequently.
- Ceramic. Ceramic fillings are often made of porcelain and they are popular for people who want a natural looking tooth. They are durable, but can be abrasive if they hit up against natural teeth. Your dentist will need to make sure that you are biting correctly and the ceramic crown is smooth in order to prevent tooth wear.
- Glass ionomers. These glass and acrylic fillings bond chemically to dental hard tissues and release fluoride slowly over time. They are indicated for low-stress areas and are usually placed on roots or front teeth. They are often used in children as a short-term solution for baby teeth.
When it's time to fill your cavity, your dentist will first numb the area using local anesthesia. If you're very nervous about the procedure, talk to your dentist about options for managing your concerns to help you relax.
Once the area surrounding the cavity is numb, your dentist will remove the decayed tissue using a special dental drill, an air abrasion instrument, or even a laser. The end result is the same-the removal of decayed tissue. The instrument used depends in part on where the tooth decay is and how severe it is. Air abrasion is a relatively new technique in dentistry that involves using a handheld device to spray a tiny stream of aluminum oxide particles onto the area of the tooth to be removed. The particles hit the tooth and blast away the desired amount of tissue without any heat or vibration. Most patients report that the procedure is essentially painless. But if you have a very deep cavity or it is in a tricky spot between the teeth, your dentist will likely use the dental drill.
Once the decayed material is removed, your dentist will clean out any debris and place the filling in the cavity. If the cavity is deep, your dentist may place a liner over the cavity before placing the filling to protect the tooth nerve.
When the filling is in place, your dentist will clean and polish it and send you on your way. Your lips and gum area may be numb for the first few hours, so chew food carefully and avoid chewing on the part of your mouth where the filling is located. Some tooth sensitivity is normal during the first few weeks after a filling. You might also want to avoid triggers, such as extremely hot or cold foods. If the sensitivity persists after a few weeks, contact your dentist. And if you feel pain in the tooth when biting, see your dentist as soon as possible-you may need to have the filling reshaped.
Don't worry if you feel some pain or sensitivity in teeth that are next to the filled tooth. This "referred pain" is the nerves in the filled tooth sending pain signals to other teeth. It is normal and should subside within a week or two.
After you've received a filling, take good care of it. Follow a regular oral health routine of twice daily tooth brushing (preferably with a fluoride toothpaste) and daily flossing. And be sure to see your dentist for regular checkups-you may not notice when your filling starts to wear down, but your dentist will be able to notice this and also find any weak spots during a checkup. If your filling breaks or falls out, see your dentist immediately so it can be repaired or replaced.