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How Long Can You Leave a Cavity Untreated?

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A man is holding his jaw in pain by an untreated cavity..

When it comes to dental health, cavities are among the most common concerns that lead patients to seek dental care. A cavity, also called dental caries, occurs when the enamel of a tooth is eroded due to the acids produced by bacteria in plaque. 

This can lead to small holes or openings in the tooth, and if left untreated, cavities can lead to more serious dental issues, including tooth loss. But how long can you really leave a cavity untreated? The answer isn’t as straightforward as it may seem and depends on various factors, including the severity of the decay, the tooth’s location, and your overall dental health.

Understanding Cavities: What Happens If You Wait?

Cavities don’t appear overnight; they develop over time. In the early stages, cavities may cause little to no discomfort, which is why they often go unnoticed at home. During these initial stages, intervention is relatively simple and less costly if detected by a dentist during your regular checkups. A small cavity can typically be treated with a filling, where the dentist will remove the decayed portion of the tooth and fill it with a strong, durable material.

However, the longer a cavity is left untreated, the more the decay will spread into deeper layers of the tooth. This progression can lead to several complications:

  • Increased Pain and Sensitivity: As the decay reaches the middle layer of the tooth (dentin), you may start experiencing increased sensitivity and pain. This discomfort can intensify as the cavity approaches the innermost part of the tooth, where nerves and blood vessels reside.
  • Infection: If the cavity reaches the pulp of the tooth, it can lead to an infection. This infection can cause severe pain, swelling, and an abscess, which is a pocket of pus that forms at the root of the tooth. If the infection spreads beyond the tooth, it can impact other parts of the body, leading to more serious health issues.
  • Loss of Tooth Structure: The larger and deeper a cavity gets, the more tooth structure is lost. This can compromise the integrity of the tooth, making it fragile and susceptible to breaking. In some cases, a crown may be needed to restore the tooth, or it might even need to be extracted if the damage is severe.

Factors Influencing the Progression of Cavities

The rate at which a cavity progresses can vary widely depending on several factors:

  • Oral Hygiene: Regular brushing and flossing can slow the progression of cavities by removing plaque and reducing the number of harmful bacteria in the mouth.
  • Diet: Consuming foods high in sugar and acids can accelerate tooth decay. Frequent snacking and sipping sugary drinks can give bacteria more fuel to produce acids that erode tooth enamel.
  • Fluoride Exposure: Fluoride helps to remineralize enamel and can slow down or even reverse early signs of tooth decay. Lack of fluoride can hasten the deterioration of tooth enamel.
  • Saliva Production: Saliva helps neutralize acids in the mouth and wash away food particles. Conditions that reduce saliva production, such as certain medications or medical disorders, can accelerate cavity formation.

When Should You See a Dentist?

The best answer is as soon as you suspect you have a cavity or as soon as it’s diagnosed. Early intervention is key to preventing more severe problems. Regular dental check-ups, typically recommended twice a year, can help catch cavities and other dental issues before they become serious. Even if you’re not experiencing pain, a dentist can spot early signs of decay and take preventive measures.

Even Without Pain, It Is Recommended to a Dentist

It’s a common misconception that dental visits are only necessary when experiencing pain or discomfort. However, pain is often a late indicator of dental problems, meaning that by the time pain is felt, the condition may have already advanced. 

Regular visits allow your dentist to monitor the stability and progression of your oral health, providing an opportunity to take preventive actions against potential dental issues.

Additionally, dentists can offer advice on proper oral hygiene techniques, recommend products tailored to your specific dental needs, and help you refine your daily dental care routine to prevent the formation of cavities and other dental conditions.

The Path Towards a Healthy Smile

Waiting to treat a cavity can lead to significant dental and health issues. While it’s tempting to delay treatment, especially if there’s no pain, the risks of waiting are too high. Cavities are easier, less invasive, and cheaper to treat in their earliest stages. Regular dental visits and good oral hygiene are your best defense against the complications associated with untreated dental caries. For your next visit, consider booking with Fairview Dental Centre! Prioritize your dental health; your smile depends on it!

Dr. Ferhana Jaleel

Written by Dr. Ferhana Jaleel

As a dentist in the Ottawa area Dr. Ferhana Jaleel has been practicing full-time general dentistry over 25 years and expertly cares for patients of all ages.

To ensure that she provides patients with the best quality and most advanced care, she continually upgrades her knowledge and skills. This continued education covers topics on cosmetic and reconstructive periodontal surgery, aesthetics including Lumineers®, orthodontics, Invisalign®, placement and restoration of dental implants, and many others.

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