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Gum disease, tartar, plaque, root canal - these are terms that are likely to cross your mind when thinking about your next dentist appointment.

But there is one that worries you above them all: cavity.

Every dental exam keeps us holding onto hope that we’ll get a good report of no cavities.

Let’s talk about how you can detect the presence of a cavity on your own and chat about the signs and symptoms.

What is a Cavity?

Cavities are areas in the enamel of the teeth that have become irreversibly decayed, creating holes (literal cavities) in the teeth. This tooth damage may be the result of a bunch of things, which we will get into in a bit. While young children, teens, and older adults have the highest chances of developing cavities, no one is excluded.

Cavities can exist on any part of a tooth and in any part of the mouth, though the teeth at the back of the mouth are most susceptible due to their size and texture, which can allow food to be trapped most easily.

Common Signs and Symptoms of a Cavity

Cavities may look like chipped areas on the tooth, dark spots, or visible holes. These are easily detected. Other cavities (like ones that sit between two teeth) can only be detected by an x-ray. If you are able to visibly see a cavity, it is already advanced in stage and has likely been on your tooth for some time.

Another way to spot a cavity is by assessing the symptoms you may be experiencing. Here are a few detectable symptoms of a cavity. These range from mild to severe.

1. Tooth Pain

Not to be confused with mere tooth sensitivity, this kind of discomfort comes from swelling inside your tooth as the pulp becomes irritated by exposure to outside elements. Pain is often made worse when biting down.

2. Sensitivity

This is not the most accurate determination of whether or not you have a cavity, as some people experience tooth sensitivity for other reasons (like at-home tooth whitening kits, for example). If you only experience sensitivity while eating or drinking particularly hot or cold items, and your sensitivity is not accompanied by visible signs of a cavity, like dark spots on the teeth, cavities may not be the cause.

However, if sensitivity persists when not eating, you may want to see a dentist for a professional opinion, as you may have a cavity. The reason for cavity sensitivity is that tooth erosion causes dentin to remain unprotected and its channels to the nerve inside your tooth exposed.

3. Bad Breath

If you have noticed your breath smelling off, especially if combined with either of the other symptoms above, you may have a cavity problem. The bacteria that sits in the decayed portion of your tooth puts off an odor, giving bad breath. Not to worry, as a dentist removes tooth decay, the smell will also subside.

How Do Cavities Form?

Your mouth carries bacteria. (Don’t worry it’s not just you, every mouth can harbor bacteria.) The issue arises when that bacteria attracts itself to the residue on your teeth. The food and bacteria join forces to form plaque. Plaque then attacks your enamel as it sits on your teeth. Now your smooth protective outer layer is compromised and your teeth are left vulnerable to damage.

When your dentin, the softer layer underneath enamel, is exposed, its openings allow the pulp inside your teeth to become affected by outside irritants like the things you eat and drink. Once this decay has begun to happen, you are considered to have a cavity.

What Causes Cavities?

There is no one way that cavities develop, but here are a few possibilities.

1. Sugary Foods

Foods high in sugar, starch, and acidity are bad for your teeth. This doesn't mean you should never consume these tasty temptations, but rather that limiting the intake of foods like candy, chips, and soda is a good idea if you are trying to avoid cavities developing, as these types of food encourage plaque build-up.

2. Frequent Snacking 

The less frequently you eat, the less time food and beverages are given the chance to rest on or cling to your teeth. If you are going to eat foods higher in sugar, starch, and acid, it is preferable to eat them in larger quantities less often than to eat smaller amounts too consistently.

If you do like to snack often, consider brushing your teeth after eating. Twice toothpastes include cavity-fighting fluoride along with ingredients to strengthen enamel and whiten teeth--two other benefits that can aid in supporting oral wellness no matter what snacks you start munching on!

3. Gingivitis 

Gingivitis may be perceived as being a completely separate issue from cavities, however if you notice redness or tenderness at the top of your teeth, along the gumline, you may be in danger of developing a cavity. This inflammation of the gums may lead to the start or exacerbation of cavities.

4. Foregoing Fluoride

Fluoride is a strong defender of your enamel and should be in any toothpaste that you purchase. Fluoride can remineralize your teeth by absorbing into the enamel and replacing lost calcium stores. If you do not already use fluoride toothpaste, you may want to do your teeth a favor and switch to a gentle fluoride toothpaste that can help protect your teeth from cavities.

5. Not Brushing Enough 

We touched on this topic regarding snacking too often, but even if you do not snack often, you may not be brushing often enough. Each time you brush, especially if you are using a good fluoride toothpaste, your teeth are both cleansed and protected from acids and sugars. Brush at least twice a day, two minutes per brushing session, to help protect your teeth and keep your enamel strong.

6. Acid Erosion 

Issues like heartburn and eating disorders may greatly contribute to the breakdown of your tooth enamel. This is because the acid in your stomach is harmful for your teeth. People with disorders such as bulimia may notice excessive cavities due to the acid in vomit passing by the teeth too frequently. Another common reason for tooth decay is heartburn. Reflux causes acid to come up the esophagus and compromises the strength of your tooth enamel.

7. Previous Dental Work 

Perhaps you have already gotten cavities filled and notice cavity symptoms again. Fillings can deteriorate overtime, leaving jagged edges or space between the filling and tooth. If this is the case, plaque may settle in the gaps, causing tooth decay under your filling.

8. Neglecting Flossing 

Brushing your teeth is the paramount way to promote oral health, however it may not be enough. Tooth spacing is not uniform, and food may easily become trapped between the gaps in your teeth. If this happens, your toothbrush may not be enough to release these leftover bits. In these cases, flossing is highly beneficial to get into the places a toothbrush cannot and prevent cavities.

How to Stop Cavities from Happening

You are now hopefully confident in observing your teeth and determining if a cavity is present or if a dental visit is necessary. However, hopefully you do not have any of the symptoms of a cavity.

In any case, the best ways to avoid cavities are to avoid the causes by:

1. Switching Out Your Snacks

Trade in your candy for apples, instead. Switch out your starches for strawberries. Choose water over juice. When possible. Making small changes like these will help keep your teeth healthy and strong. Don’t worry, we won’t judge you for having a cupcake every now and again. Just make sure you brush afterward.

2. Brushing Often

Remember to brush twice per day, for two minutes each time, and after any sugary or starchy snack sessions. Use a soft-bristle toothbrush for a gentle clean that won’t wear down your enamel.

3. Flossing

Back-up your brush by flossing at least once per day, or if you feel any food caught between your teeth.

If you notice any of these signs or symptoms of cavities going on, it may be time to seek out a professional opinion. We know going to the dentist isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you use these tips to avoid getting cavities in the future, you and your teeth will be happy!

This page was written or reviewed for accuracy by the Twice Team. Learn more about us.