If your dentist says you have one or more cavities, you will need to have them filled. The process of cavity filling, or tooth filling, prevents the cavity from becoming worse and helps to protect your teeth from further decay.
Cavities themselves are holes in your teeth caused by bacteria. Getting cavities filled is more than filling in the hole in your tooth, however. During the tooth-filling process, a licensed dentist will remove bits of decayed tooth, clean the area, put in the filler material, and file down the filling so it does not affect the way you bite or chew.
Cavities that go untreated can lead to more serious dental problems, including gum disease, infection, and bone loss. These problems often need more involved treatments, such as root canals.
The tooth-filling process itself is straightforward and, these days, nearly painless. Still, it helps to know what is typically involved during the visit.
How Much Time Does it Take to Fill a Cavity?
A typical cavity filling can be done in a single office visit. This visit might take more or less time, however, depending on how many cavities you have. You should also plan on having some time to recover afterward: The area around the cavity is often numbed, and it takes a while for this numbness to wear off. This can make drinking, eating, and talking awkward. So schedule at least a few hours to have the procedure done, and for the anesthetic to wear off.
Getting a Cavity Filled: The Visit
Getting a cavity filled is much like any other visit to a dentist’s office. After a brief wait, you’ll be shown to the chair, and a dentist (or an oral hygienist) will have a look at your mouth. There are several things you can then expect:
1. Q&A time. This is the point where you will want to discuss the procedure with your dentist. Feel free to ask any questions you may still have. Your dentist might also have some questions for you. Answer these honestly: They are meant to help your dentist understand what your mouth needs (and not to make you feel guilty or ashamed!).
2. Filling material? For example, your dentist will want to know what kind of filling you want for your tooth. There are many options these days: Silver-colored amalgam, ceramics, glass-resin composites, and even gold. If you are allergic to any of these substances, you should let your dentist know.
3. X-rays, possibly. Your dentist might also want to take x-rays of your teeth at this time. This will give him or her a better picture of your mouth overall. Although they are not necessary, it is a good idea to have x-rays done periodically so your dentist can note any changes to your mouth.
4. Numbing the area. Before the actual filling, the area around the cavity will be numbed so you feel no pain during the procedure. Most often this is done by applying a shot of anesthetic (Novocain, for example) to your gums just below the tooth. The shot itself might feel uncomfortable for a bit—like a pin-prick or pinch—until the anesthetic begins to work. For this reason, some dentists also apply a topical anesthetic to your gum before the shot.
5. Removing the decay parts. Once the area is numb, the dentist will begin “drilling out” the tooth. This involves using dental tools to slowly grind away (“abrade”) the decayed parts of your tooth. The process can be loud, depending on the kinds of tools your dentist uses. You might also feel pressure or vibration.
That said, a relatively newer technique for clearing away decayed tooth material has been developed, called “air abrasion.” With air abrasion, a small device is used to spray a tiny stream of particles (aluminum oxide, to be exact) into the affected area. This clears away the decayed material without the need for abrasion or heat. Although the process is nearly painless, it is not recommended for cavities that are very deep, or in hard-to-reach places.
Once the decayed parts of the tooth are removed, the dentist will clean the area before doing the actual filling.
6. Filling, shaping, and polishing. After the filling material is in the cavity space, it will need to be shaped and polished. This can take more or less time, depending on the location and size of the original cavity. Some material types (composite resin, for example) need to first hardened using an ultraviolet light before being polished.
7. Bite check and repeat. Finally, the dentist will check your bite to make sure that it has not been affected by the filling. If your bite is off, or you experience discomfort, the filling might require more shaping and polishing. The process is repeated until you get a good, clean bite.
Your Mouth After Getting a Tooth Filled
Again, the effects of the anaesthetic can last a few hours after your visit. Be careful when eating and drinking. Also, do not schedule anything that might require you to speak clearly, as some people find that they “sound funny” for a little bit afterward.
In the first few weeks after the filling, it is not uncommon to have some sensitivity in and around the filled tooth. This can especially be triggered by heat or cold (for example, eating ice cream). This kind of sensitivity is normal and should go away in a couple of weeks. You should call your dentist if:
- The pain does not go away after two to three weeks,
- The pain gets steadily worse,
- You have problems chewing, or
- You experience bleeding or extreme sensitivity around the site.
Although these are rare, they can indicate a complication. It may be something as simple as needing to reshape the filling. Still, pain can be an indication of infection or damage, so it is best to see your dentist if you suspect something is wrong.
A filled tooth must be cared for, just like a natural tooth. A good oral health routine includes brushing at least twice daily and flossing. You should also schedule regular checkups with your dentist—at least twice a year is recommended. Not only will this help keep your teeth clean and problem free, but it also gives your dentist an opportunity to check for wear on your fillings. Although most tooth fillings are made to last a long time, the can wear down or break. When this happens, you will need a replacement filling sooner rather than later.
If you have questions about specific points in the filling process—for example, questions about filling material, drilling tools, or polishing—see our other blog posts about the filling process, or else reach out and contact us with your questions.