Cavities are holes in teeth caused by decay. They are common oral health problems that can occur in both children and adults. Getting cavities treated early is important to prevent further decay and protect your oral health. While fillings are a common way to treat cavities, there are also some non-invasive methods to get rid of cavities without traditional fillings.
What causes cavities?
Cavities form when plaque, a sticky film containing bacteria, builds up on teeth. The bacteria in plaque feed on sugars and starches in foods and produce acids that wear away tooth enamel. This erosion causes microscopic holes to form. If not treated promptly, these holes become cavities.
Several factors can increase your risk of developing cavities:
- Poor oral hygiene – Not brushing and flossing regularly allows plaque to build up.
- Frequent snacking/sipping – Constant snacking or sipping sugary drinks exposes teeth to more acid attacks.
- Dry mouth – Less saliva means less protection from acid erosion.
- Acidic foods and drinks – Soda, citrus, and other acidic items promote enamel erosion.
- Medications – Some meds like antihistamines reduce saliva flow.
- Genetics – Some people are more prone to cavities due to tooth shape/enamel issues.
Why treat cavities?
Getting cavities treated is important for the following reasons:
- Prevent pain – As cavities grow deeper into teeth, they can irritate nerves and cause toothache.
- Avoid infection – Bacteria from decay can spread inside the tooth and cause an abscess.
- Prevent tooth loss – Untreated cavities can worsen and cause teeth to fracture or fall out.
- Prevent spread – Cavities can continue spreading to other teeth if not addressed.
- Improve appearance – Cavities can become dark, stained pits in teeth.
- Promote oral health – Fixing cavities helps keep your mouth healthy overall.
Traditional cavity treatment – fillings
The standard way to treat cavities is by filling them. Dentists use fillings to remove decay and restore teeth structure. Fillings are also placed to cover pits and grooves on teeth to prevent cavities developing in those spots. Common types of filling material include:
- Amalgam – A mixture of metals including mercury, silver, and others. Amalgam is strong and durable.
- Composite resin – Plastic and glass blend matched to tooth color. Composites are tooth-colored but less durable.
- Glass ionomer – Acid and glass combination used for small fillings. Releases fluoride.
- Gold – Gold alloy fillings are visually noticeable but very strong.
The procedure for getting a filling involves:
- Numbing the area with local anesthesia.
- Removing decay from the cavity and cleaning it.
- Applying etching solution to prepare the cavity.
- Filling the cavity with the chosen material.
- Shaping/polishing the filling for comfortable fit.
While effective at repairing cavities, fillings do have some drawbacks:
- Can cause temporary tooth and nerve sensitivity.
- Require removing healthy tooth structure along with decayed parts.
- Composite fillings have shorter lifespan vs. amalgam fillings.
- Multiple fillings increase risk of future tooth fractures.
Alternatives to traditional fillings
There are some alternatives that can get rid of cavities without extensive drilling or fillings. These options aim to prevent cavities from worsening and promote healing:
Fluoride helps remineralize softened enamel and reverse early decay before a cavity develops. High concentration fluoride applied by dental professionals can promote mineral redeposition in small lesions to heal early cavities. Common fluoride treatments include:
- Fluoride varnish – Varnish concentrated with fluoride is painted on teeth 1-4 times yearly.
- Fluoride gel – Custom trays are filled with fluoride gel and worn for 10-20 minutes at home or in office.
Sealants are thin plastic coatings applied to the chewing surfaces of back teeth. Getting sealants placed over pits and grooves provides a protective barrier against food and plaque getting trapped in those spots and causing decay. Sealants last several years and are highly preventive against cavities in permanent molars.
Silver diamine fluoride
Silver diamine fluoride (SDF) can stop cavities from getting bigger and prevent new ones from forming. It works by disrupting bacteria and strengthening weakened areas. SDF is painted onto cavities to halt decay. It can blacken decayed areas and is most useful for arresting cavities in kids or special needs patients.
Remineralization therapy aims to rebuild and strengthen weakened areas on teeth. This helps repair early demineralization before it turns into a cavity. Remineralization is achieved by increasing available calcium, phosphate, and fluoride minerals. Treatment includes:
- High fluoride toothpaste, rinses, gels – used at home.
- Calcium phosphate rinses or pastes – applied in office.
- Casein phosphopeptide paste – derived from milk, applied to teeth.
Ozone therapy uses ozone gas to disinfect cavities by killing bacteria. After disinfection, the cavity can reharden and repair itself. Ozone effectively treats early decay and small lesions without drilling. The gas is applied using a handheld device for a short time.
Lasers can selectively remove decay from a cavity while leaving healthy tooth intact. This minimally invasive approach causes little to no discomfort. Lasers alter cavity environment to neutralize acidity and inhibit bacteria. They can help revive damaged nerve tissue as well.
Tooth remineralization diet
Your dietary habits impact oral health and cavity development. Limiting sugars and acidic foods prevents more enamel erosion. Eating more foods rich in calcium, phosphate, and vitamins D and K promotes remineralization and strengthens teeth against decay. Helpful foods include:
- Cheese, milk, yogurt
- Nuts and seeds
- Leafy greens
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Black/green tea
- Whole grains
- Sugar-free gum
When are fillings still needed?
While the alternatives can help stop early decay, fillings are still the standard treatment for moderate to advanced cavities, including:
- Cavities with moderate decay and loss of tooth structure
- Deep lesions extending close to pulp chamber
- Extensive cavities under old fillings
- Painful cavities or those with pulpal inflammation
- Cavities that undermine large sections of enamel
- Infected cavities with abscess present
Such cases involve more significant decay, and fillings are needed to fully restore function, shape, and health of the tooth. The alternatives can supplement fillings for enhanced remineralization.
- Good oral hygiene minimizes the risk of getting cavities in the first place.
- Fluoride protects against demineralization and aids early remineralization.
- Sealants prevent decay in vulnerable pits and grooves.
- Healthy dietary habits strengthen teeth and limit enamel acid exposure.
- Alternative therapies can reverse early decay but cannot address advanced cavities.
- Regular dental cleanings and checkups catch cavities early for more minimal treatment.
Treating cavities early using non-invasive methods can help avoid extensive fillings. These alternative approaches focus on stopping and reversing early decay before it progresses. They harness the natural remineralization potential of teeth. While effective for early lesions, they cannot fully substitute for fillings with substantial structural loss. By starting appropriate therapy early and supporting natural remineralization, many small cavities can be arrested without drilling or fillings. But for deep or advanced decay, traditional fillings are still needed to restore the form and function of the tooth.