And a small cavity can grow into a larger problem. Left alone, the tooth may become infected, possibly necessitating a root canal or even an extraction.
When a cavity develops, your dentist will typically recommend dental fillings as treatment. But what exactly are fillings, and do you really need them? Well, here we’ll take a look at what they are, how they’re applied, and what can happen if you wait to have a filling done.
What Do Dental Fillings Entail?
Dental fillings have been around for a long time. In fact, a recent archeological finding shows an attempt at applying a filling sometime around 13,000 years ago.
Thankfully, dental techniques and technology have come a long way since then. In modern times, the process starts when a dentist spots a cavity in a patient’s tooth.
Using a local anesthetic, the dentist will numb the area around the tooth in need of treatment. Then, using either a drill, an air abrasion instrument, or even a laser, the dentist will remove the decayed part of the tooth.
After testing the area to ensure that all of the decay has been removed, the dentist needs to prepare the area by cleaning it of any stray debris or bacteria. Otherwise, they’d just leave behind a new pocket of decay.
With the space cleared, a dentist can start building the filling. Depending on the material used, this process could take a couple of forms.
For tooth-colored fillings, for example, the material is applied in layers, with a special light that hardens the material needing to be applied to each layer. With each layer complete, the dentist will shape the material into its proper form, clear away any extra bits, and finally polish it to make it look more natural.
Types of Dental Fillings
As mentioned, there’s more than one dental filling material. Teeth can be filled with gold, porcelain, silver amalgam, and a variety of tooth-colored composite materials.
Each has its own positives and negatives, and different materials may be better for different circumstances. The location and degree of decay in a tooth, your funds and insurance coverage, and your dentist’s recommendations will affect which material is best for you.
The biggest benefit to gold fillings is their durability, lasting at least 10-15 years. Being metal, they’re strong enough to withstand chewing forces. And gold doesn’t corrode either, helping to extend their lifespan.
Among the major downsides is cost; gold fillings can cost up to 10 times as much as a comparable filling made from another material. They also require multiple office visits to apply, necessitating a temporary dental filling in the meantime. And many patients aren’t fond of the aesthetics of colored fillings, preferring something that better-matches the natural tooth around them.
Silver Amalgam Fillings
Silver amalgam fillings are made from silver combined with a variety of other metals to produce a material appropriate for use as a filling. They have comparable durability to gold fillings at a fraction of the cost, and typically outlast tooth-colored fillings.
But being that they’re not tooth-colored they’re extremely noticeable, and many patients find them even less aesthetically pleasing than gold fillings. They can even cause discoloration in the surrounding tooth, turning the whole surface a grayish hue.
They also tend to require the removal of extra tooth material to create enough space for them. And when exposed to hot or cold temperatures, they can expand or contract at greater rates than the surrounding teeth. Over time, this can put pressure on the tooth and cause cracks to form.
Some patients also express concern about the use of mercury as part of the amalgam material. While mercury exposure can cause health problems at high levels, the American Dental Association maintains that there is no link between the minute amount present in fillings and any mercury-related health problems.
These fillings are made from a resin composite that is able to mimic the appearance of a natural tooth. Hence, they’re the most popular choice with patients who are concerned with keeping a natural-looking smile.
They also bond to the tooth better than metal fillings, helping to reinforce the damaged tooth. Combined with the fact that they also require the removal of less tooth than metal fillings, this makes them a better choice for maintaining the health of the tooth.
They lack durability compared to metal fillings, however, lasting only a fraction as long before they need to be repaired or replaced. They’re also expensive, costing up to twice as much as silver.
Caring for a Filling
Once you’ve had a filling put in, you need to care for it as you would with any tooth. Following good oral hygiene and visiting your dentist for regular cleanings will help extend the life of your fillings.
During regular check-ups, your dentist will also assess the health of your fillings. If they suspect there might be a problem with a filling, they’ll order X-rays to determine if it’s time to repair or replace it.
In between check-ups, be sure to take note if a filling doesn’t feel quite right. If you experience unusual sensitivity, notice sharp edges on a filled tooth, or noticeable chips or cracks have formed, it’s time to make an appointment.