How To Fill A Cavity: Procedure, Materials & Aftercare

A cavity filling allows dentists to restore partially decayed teeth. Even though many people are afraid of their dentists, this treatment tends to be quick, effective, and relatively inexpensive. Cavities only get worse if left unfilled. Visiting your dentist on a regular basis allows you to stay on top of the health of your teeth and arrange corrective procedures.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research suggests that around 93% of adults between 20 and 64 have a cavity, and at least 29% of them leave this decay untreated. Dentists are able to quickly identify tooth decay and create a plan of action to fill the tooth to full health.

Do your part with by sticking to your oral hygiene routines at home.

How To Tell You Need A Filling

African male patient getting dental treatment in dental clinicOnly a dentist can tell for sure if you need a filling for a cavity. Your dentist will examine your teeth using a small mirror during a dental check-up. If something looks wrong the dentist uses special instruments to take a closer look. They may also X-ray your mouth if necessary.

There are some signs that you may have dental decay though, including:

  • Pain and/or sensitivity
  • Bad odor
  • Infection
  • Aesthetic blemishes

The Dental Filling Procedure

Filling a cavity is more than literally filling the hole caused by decay. The dentist will remove decayed tooth material during the procedure to prevent the decay from continuing, as this will lead to an even bigger cavity or potentially an abscess (infection) that results in bone loss and needs a root canal to fix.

Is The Procedure Painful?

Given that leaving cavities untreated causes more dental problems, and they never heal by themselves, it’s vital that you have the tooth filled properly as soon as you can. Luckily you don’t need to worry about this procedure as advancements made to technology, techniques, and anaesthesia have made the procedure simple and virtually pain-free.

Local Anasthetic

working dentistWhen you visit your dentist they will numb the affected area so that you don’t feel any pain during the filling procedure. Many dentists administer a shot of local anaesthetic to the gum around the tooth that they are going to work on.

While many people feel the shot itself is uncomfortable, this pain only lasts for a few seconds. It feels like a pinch as the needle breaks through the surface of the gum. Then the shot kicks in and you don’t feel any more pain during the rest of the procedure.

Some dentists use a topical anaesthetic gel to numb your gums a little before administering the injection so even the needle being injected into your gums is completely painless.

How Long Does It Take?

A cavity can be filled in just one office visit. How long it takes to fill the cavity can depend on the state of decay. The procedure will typically take between 15 minutes and an hour though.

The procedure of filling a cavity is much shorter than other procedures such as fitting a crown or bridge or a root canal. The procedure starts with the injection of the local anesthetic, which takes up to ten minutes.

How Do Dentists Fill Cavities?

Dental instruments closeup on the dental chairThe first thing the dentist does is scrape away any decayed areas from the tooth. They use a dental dril, laser, or air abrasion instrument to remove decay from the tooth. The dental drill is the most common method for performing this procedure, while the air abrasion method is a relatively new method for smaller cavities.

The next step is to sterilize the hole and prepare it for filling. A filling material is used for the actual filing itself. No matter which filling material is used, the dentist fills out the cavity of the tooth using the material and then shapes and polishes it to match the existing tooth. There are some materials, such as composite resin, that must be hardened first using an ultraviolet light before they can be polished. The dentist then checks your bite and makes any other modifications necessary to properly refurbish the tooth.

Cavity Filling Materials

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution for cavity filling materials. The material that is best for you is determined by the extent of the repair, any allergies you may have to the materials, where the filling will go in your mouth, and the cost of the material. Think about what your insurer is willing to cover before making a choice.

The following are the materials available for fillings:

Gold Fillings

Gold fillings are made to order in laboratories and then cemented in place in the mouth. A gold inlay can be tolerated by gums pretty well and can last up to 15 years or longer. This is why many consider gold to be the best material for fillings. The problem is that it tends to be the most expensive, costing 6-10 times more than amalgam. They also take several visits to be completely installed.

Amalgam (Silver) Fillings

Silver fillings are a cost-effective solution that lasts up to a decade or longer. Given their dark appearance however, they tend to be more noticeable than porcelain and generally aren’t used in visible areas such as for front teeth.

Another potential problem is that around 1% of patients are allergic to silver fillings. The ADA issued a statement in 2008 about amalgams, warning that even though there’s no direct evidence the fillings are dangerous, they do contain mercury. This trace element can have neurotoxic effects on the nervous systems of developing fetuses and children. The FDA also issued a warning saying that expectant mothers should discuss the potential harm to their unborn children with their doctors.

Composite (Plastic) Resins

Close-up Of Girl With Open Mouth During Oral Checkup At The DentistThese fillings are made to match the color of the teeth and are best when one needs a natural appearance. The ingredients will be mixed together before being placed directly into the cavity, which is where they harden into place.

Composites aren’t ideal for a large filling because they can chip and wear away over time. They may also get stained by tobacco, tea, and coffee, and they don’t last as long as other kinds of fillings; lasting between three and ten years.

Porcelain Fillings

These fillings are called onlays or inlays and are made to order in labs before being bonded to teeth. They are designed to match the color of the tooth and are resistant to staining. Porcelain fillings generally cover most of the tooth. They cost around as much as gold fillings and are able to last as long; 15 years if not longer.

Glass Ionomer

These fillings are made from acrylic and a component of glass known as fluoroaluminosilicate. In traditional fillings, the material will set without the need for a bright light. Hybrid composite glass ionomer fillings and resin-modified fillings are tougher and need to be set with a bright blue light.

Glass ionomer is typically used as the cement in inlay fillings. It can also be used to fill front teeth, or around the back of teeth or used in roots. Glass ionomer is generally used as a filling material for people with a lot of tooth decay in the part of the tooth that extends below the gums (the root caries). It can also be used to fill baby teeth and as a liner for different kinds of fillings.

This kind of filling lasts for around five years and costs around the same as a composite resin filling.

Cavity Filling Aftercare

Taking care of cavity fillings is a lifetime commitment. Patients are advised against eating solid foods for a short amount of time following the procedure. That is because of the disorienting numbness caused by the local anesthetic that can leave patients accidentally biting down on their gums or lips.

After you regain feeling your mouth, you might notice discomfort or sensitivity. There’s nothing to worry about unless the discomfort continues past several weeks however. There are rare instances where the filling may need to be adjusted. If you feel that the filling is altering or obstructing your natural bite then consult your dentist. Fillings generally work to improve your bite.

visit at dentist officeHow long it takes for the filling to set depends on the filling material. It could be anywhere between just a few minutes – if a blue dental light was used – to 48 hours for the filling to set. You may be advised to take painkillers to reduce the potential discomfort following the procedure.

Keep in mind that even the best filling materials are expected to last up to 15 years. Continue your regular visits to your dentist to continue monitoring the condition of the filling and ensure more problems aren’t arising.

Make sure to chew responsibly in the future and avoid eating foods that may damage your fillings or teeth. If you feel that your filling may have been damaged then consult a dentist as soon as possible. Loose and broken fillings should be properly disinfected and replaced as soon as possible to avoid the risk of infection.

Cavity Fillings During Pregnancy

It’s important to have dental decay treated during pregnancy. You may be left waiting until after the birth for x-rays, whitening, and certain other dental procedures, but you should have cavities treated as soon as possible.

Tooth decay and oral bacteria are known to cause infections and may potentially put both mother and baby at risk. Pregnant women sometimes avoid having a cavity filled while pregnant because they believe the procedure might harm their baby. The reality is that leaving the cavity untreated is an even greater risk.

Always make sure to brush and floss your teeth properly to avoid dental decay.

The American Dental Association recommend that pregnant women should brush twice a day using an ADA-approved fluoride toothpaste.