A cavity is a hole in a tooth. Cavities are the end result of tooth decay, which occurs when dental plaque (a layer of food particles, bacteria, and minerals) persists on the tooth’s surface because of inadequate dental hygiene. The bacteria convert the sugar in the food particles to acid, which eats away at the enamel of the tooth.

If left untreated, the decay continues to erode the tooth, eventually extending into the deeper layers of the tooth. Children’s teeth are softer and have thinner enamel than adult teeth, so their risk is higher. However, cavities are a common problem among people of all ages.

How can I tell if I have a cavity?

Cavities usually appear as a pale or dark spot initially and gradually turn a yellow, brown, or black colour. It’s a good idea to regularly examine your mouth to detect any discolouration. However, if a cavity is located between two teeth or on the back surface of a tooth, you might never see it at all.

That’s one of the reasons dentists recommend regular checkups – so that cavities can be detected in their early stages, before they cause more serious problems. Your dentist will determine whether you have a cavity by examining your teeth thoroughly, probing for softness, and performing radiographs.

Early tooth decay isn’t painful, which means that without regular checkups you probably won’t even know you have a cavity until it starts to penetrate deeper into the tooth. When this happens, you may find your teeth become more sensitive to heat, cold, or pressure.

When the decay reaches the central pulp cavity of the tooth, where the most nerve endings are, you will start to experience persistent and sometimes quite intense pain. At this point, you are also at risk of developing a dental abscess.

How soon do I need to see a dentist if I suspect I have a cavity?

As soon as you possibly can. The sooner you see a dentist, the greater the chance that the tooth decay can be stopped in its tracks before it starts to cause pain and without the need for serious (and expensive!) intervention.

If you catch it really early, you might even get away with a simple fluoride treatment to restore the enamel. But if you are already experiencing sensitivity or pain, you will probably need more extensive treatment.

The longer you leave it, the more damage will occur, the more pain you’ll experience, and the bigger the bill you’ll be up for at the end.

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What treatment will the dentist recommend?

  • Cavities of mild to moderate severity are most commonly treated with fillings, also known as restorations. Your dentist will drill away the damaged tooth and fill the defect with one of several restorative materials with varying appearance, strength, and cost.
  • If the damage is more extensive, you may require a crown. This involves drilling away the natural crown (visible portion) of the tooth and replacing it with a covering. Crowns, too, can be made of various materials at different price points.
  • If the damage extends right into the pulp cavity, you may need to have a root canal. This is similar to a filling, but more involved because the diseased pulp must be removed and the cavity may need to have medication instilled before being replaced with a filling.
  • In severe cases, the damage to the tooth may be so bad that it simply can’t be saved. In these cases, you’ll be left with no choice but to have the tooth extracted. The gap can either be left to heal, or filled with a bridge or dental implant.

Facts About Dental Problems Related to Teeth

Is poor dental hygiene linked to other health issues?

Poor oral health like tooth decay, gum disease and tooth loss contributes to 4.5% of all the burden that non-fatal disease causes every year.

How many Aussie kids experience tooth decay in their life?

Over 33% of Australian children have experienced tooth decay in their primary teeth by the age of six (NCOHS)

How many Australian adults are affected by tooth decay and similar issues?

Over 90% of Australian adults have experienced tooth decay at some point in their lives (ADA)

Next steps

HealthEngine can help you find and book an appointment with your regular dentist or another experienced professional at a practice near you.




This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine always recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.


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This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.