How Do I Know If I Have a Cavity?

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Even if you brush your teeth and floss diligently, you aren’t immune from dental problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every four adults aged 20 to 64 currently has at least one cavity, and about 90% have had one at some point in their lives. While common, cavities can be serious. Ignoring small cavities can lead to much bigger health consequences such as gum disease and tooth infection.

But if you can’t see it in the mirror, how do you know that you have a cavity? The simplest answer is to schedule a dental checkup as soon as possible, but in the meantime, here are a few telltale signs you may have a cavity.

Sensitivity to Hot or Cold

Abnormal sensitivity to hot and cold is a major indicator of poor oral hygiene. While it’s normal for your teeth to be slightly sensitive to temperature, if it’s causing you pain or discomfort to consume regular foods, especially if the feeling lingers after you’ve eaten, it’s likely a dental issue. A cavity occurs when food and bacteria build up and erode the enamel on the surface of your teeth by producing acids. That’s why you should brush your teeth at least twice per day and watch what you eat to eliminate plaque and protect your teeth.

Underneath the enamel is a layer of hard tissue called dentin, which contains tiny hollow tubes. When the enamel starts to wear away, it leaves the nerves and cells of your tooth exposed, leading to temperature sensitivity. So, if you notice a persistent feeling of discomfort whenever you consume something hot or cold, it’s likely a sign of a cavity.

Persistent Toothache

A persistent toothache is another surefire sign that you likely have a cavity. As the bacteria and acids continue to devour the enamel, they’ll start to creep into the core of your tooth. Inside your tooth are nerves and blood vessels, which will become swollen and irritated by the bacteria. When they swell beyond a point where they have room to expand, it will result in a toothache.

It may come on suddenly when you bite down on something hard, or it may just be an ongoing, dull ache that lasts throughout the day. Either way, if you are experiencing a persistent toothache, it’s likely a sign of a cavity or some other serious dental issue.

Bad Breath

Another often overlooked symptom of cavities is bad breath. The spread of bacteria in your mouth can lead to halitosis, the medical term for bad breath caused by germs and underlying diseases. If you haven’t brushed your teeth in a while, the bad breath may go away with a good scrubbing and some mouthwash. However, if it persists even after you brush your teeth, it may be the symptom of a cavity. 

Bad breath is not only embarrassing; it’s also a warning sign that there may be a serious underlying problem. Most dentists recommend the 2-2-2 rule for preventing halitosis, which means brushing your teeth and flossing twice daily for two minutes. This will prevent plaque from building up in remote crevices, leading to cavities and other dental issues. However, it may be time to schedule a professional dental cleaning if you still have bad breath after brushing and flossing.

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Tooth Discoloration

Tooth discoloration may also be a symptom of a serious cavity. As the plaque eats through your enamel, it will change the tooth’s color. You might first notice white spots on the tooth, but if left untreated, it will eventually get darker and darker until it turns brown. Plus, dentin is naturally a darker color, and as the enamel wears away and exposes the underlayer, you’ll begin seeing discolored spots. This is a sign that your tooth is starting to decay and die, which is cause for alarm. So, if you notice major discoloration on your tooth, it’s time to consult a dentist immediately to prevent further deterioration.

Holes or Pits in Your Tooth

Holes and pits in your tooth are a very clear sign of a cavity. If left untreated, the bacteria will continue to eat away at the various layers of your tooth, almost like termites, leaving holes in the enamel. This is a sign that tooth decay has gotten serious and you need immediate medical attention. 

You may see the hole in the mirror or feel it when you run your tongue over the tooth. However, it’s also possible that the hole is in a remote crevice in your mouth that can’t be easily detected. But you’ll still feel the effects through sensitivity or pain. The good news is you can fix the hole fairly quickly with a filling. However, you should schedule an appointment with your dentist as soon as possible so the decay doesn’t get worse and you permanently damage your tooth.

The effects of a cavity can be severe, so if you suspect you may have one, you should take action immediately. The best way to prevent cavities is to practice proper oral hygiene and visit your dentist regularly. But, even if you discover an issue after the fact, you should still reach out to a professional and try to mitigate the problem as quickly as possible.  

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