How to Tell If You Have a Cavity [5 Signs]
You may be able to tell if you have a cavity by these signs:
- Visible holes
- Tooth sensitivity
- Bad breath
However, not all cavities can be diagnosed at home. For that, you’ll need the help of a dentist.
What is a cavity? A dental cavity is a hole in your tooth. As harmful bacteria and food particles build up in your mouth, they form dental plaque. Plaque clings to your teeth, but can be cleaned off with good oral hygiene. If plaque remains, the bacteria produce acids in plaque that eat away at your tooth enamel.
How do cavities form? A cavity first penetrates your tooth’s enamel, then the dentin layer below that. If cavities progress, they will penetrate your pulp, which contains blood vessels and nerves. At that point, there will likely be tooth sensitivity and sharp pain.
Is it always possible to self-diagnose a cavity? Sometimes, patients are able to tell they have cavities by feeling for crevices and holes, looking for discoloration, or having a bad taste in their mouth all the time. But other times, a cavity doesn’t cause pain. A dentist may need to see an x-ray or a physical exam to catch a cavity.
What are synonyms of cavities? Here are other terms that are often used interchangeably with “cavity”:
- Dental cavity
- Tooth decay
- Dental caries
Below, we’ll talk about what you need to know: common signs of a cavity, causes of tooth decay, cavity prevention tips, and when to see a doctor.
Common Signs of a Cavity
Here are the most common cavity symptoms:
- Visible holes
- Tooth sensitivity
- Bad breath
Can you see a cavity? Yes, sometimes you can see a cavity. It can appear as discoloration or visible holes in your tooth. But in its early stages, or if it’s hidden in hard-to-see areas, you won’t see a cavity, which is when you have to rely on noticing the other symptoms.
1. Visible Holes
By its simplest definition, cavities are holes. This is why visible holes are a common sign of cavities. When there is a hole in your tooth, it can only mean one thing: cavities.
What does the beginning of a cavity look like? You may be able to see visible holes, dark or white spots, or narrow crevices in the decaying tooth. But by the time you can self-diagnose a cavity, it’s probably too late to naturally remineralize your tooth and you need to visit a dentist.
What does a cavity feel like on your tongue? Using your tongue, you may be able to feel the holes, pits, or crevices caused by cavities.
Tooth pain is the most recognizable sign of a cavity forming. Cavity pain is usually a result of infection or inflammation irritating the nerves in your teeth.
Pain is probably the most common symptom of a cavity — at least the most noticeable. Unfortunately, it’s also a late sign of a cavity that’s in need of immediate dental attention.
Toothache can also be caused by gum disease (periodontitis), sinus infection, or even a dental procedure. A dentist can help you determine whether your tooth pain indicates tooth decay or another medical condition.
3. Tooth Sensitivity
Sensitive teeth are a sign of cavities.
Because of cavities, your teeth may be sensitive to:
Not only cold air, but cold foods can also irritate your teeth.
Often, if your teeth feel sensitive, waiting is required for the discomfort to go away. Tooth sensitivity caused by a cavity will probably be concentrated to a small area of your mouth, while sensitivity throughout the whole mouth is probably a sign of other issues.
4. Bad Breath
Also called halitosis, bad breath is a common sign that you have a cavity.
Along with bad breath, you may also experience a bad taste in your mouth.
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), bad breath can also be a sign of gum disease. So just because you have bad breath doesn’t mean you have a cavity, but it may be a sign of another oral disease.
Discoloration on your tooth may indicate you have a cavity. Ask your dentist if the dark spots on your tooth indicate tooth decay, or are just a stain.
It’s very difficult to tell the difference between cavity discoloration and a simple stain. More often than not, discoloration means there is an invisible cavity.
Yellow staining can indicate the wearing away of your tooth enamel or the hardening of your dental plaque into tartar, which only a dentist can remove.
White spots may also form as a result of tooth decay — not just brown, black, or grey.
After treating a cavity, if discoloration remains, you may want to try whitening products to get rid of those leftover dark spots. Consult with a dental professional before adding whitening products to your oral hygiene routine.
When It’s Time to See a Dentist
You should see your dentist when you exhibit these five symptoms of a cavity:
- Visible holes
- Tooth sensitivity
- Bad breath
Ultimately, you should have your twice yearly regular dental checkups anyway — even if just for a cleaning.
Once a cavity progresses too far, only a dentist will know how to get rid of a cavity. Your dentist can order x-rays to check for signs of tooth decay, gum disease, or other oral health problems.
A dental professional may perform one of the following procedures, depending on your situation:
- Dental sealant
- Root canal
Why do I have a tooth cavity? Causes of Tooth Decay
Tooth cavities are caused by the bacteria in plaque producing acid that eats through your tooth enamel. But different situations can promote plaque formation and tooth decay faster than others.
Here are some common causes of tooth decay:
- Sugary diet
- Poor oral hygiene
- Dry mouth
- Eating disorders
- Acid reflux disease
Let’s talk about these common causes in more detail below, so you can understand how to spot risk factors for tooth decay and prevent cavities.
1. Sugary Diet
Eating sugar feeds the bad bacteria in your mouth. When the bacteria in plaque feeds on sugar, it produces acid which eats away at your teeth.
A sugary diet (food and drink) can greatly contribute to cavity formation. In addition, acidic and processed foods contain ingredients that may break down enamel and lead to inflammation within the mouth or a disruption of the oral microbiome. These kinds of foods contribute to cavities similarly to sugar.
2. Poor Oral Hygiene
You need good oral hygiene to fight off plaque and cavities. Poor oral hygiene allows bacteria to thrive and eat away at your tooth enamel.
Poor oral hygiene includes:
- Not brushing twice daily
- Brushing your teeth at the wrong angle
- Brushing for too short a time
- Forgetting to floss
- Not brushing your teeth after cavity-causing meals (just remember to wait about 45 minutes)
3. Dry Mouth
Dry mouth is caused by a lack of saliva production and/or flow. Saliva prevents tooth decay by washing away some food and plaque off your teeth. Therefore, a dry mouth is a cause of tooth decay.
Your dry mouth may be caused by medication. If so, consult your doctor and see if it’s best to stop that medication. Other common causes include Sjögren’s disease and persistent mouth breathing.
The easiest way to remedy dry mouth is to drink water throughout the day. For extreme cases, you may want to try mints sweetened with xylitol to encourage saliva production or even an artificial lubricant for the mouth like Biotene.
4. Eating Disorders
Anorexia nervosa is a loss of appetite or refusal to eat. Those with anorexia don’t get the nutrients and minerals that are needed to strengthen bone structure. People with anorexia tend to have weaker teeth and jawbones.
Bulimia nervosa is characterized by vomiting or purging after eating. Those with bulimia are at double risk. Often overeating before a purge includes high-sugar foods, which harmful bacteria feed on. Then, if the person vomits or purges afterwards, the stomach acids in vomit erode your tooth enamel and lead to dry mouth.
5. Acid Reflux Disease
A common cause of tooth decay is acid reflux disease, due to acids constantly making their way into your mouth.
Acid reflux is when your lower esophageal sphincter muscle (which joins your stomach and esophagus) isn’t functioning correctly, and acid from your stomach can move backwards up your esophagus.
If the stomach acid reaches your mouth, it eats away at your tooth enamel quicker than acidic foods do.
Catching Decay Early: Why Dental Visits Matter
It is almost impossible to catch tooth decay early enough to naturally reverse the cavity.
But catching decay early is another incentive to visit the dentist twice a year. Preventing tooth decay saves you time, money, and stress.
Dental visits are important to catching decay early, preventing tooth decay by cleaning, and keeping yourself accountable for good oral hygiene.
Can a cavity go away on its own?
In the early stages of tooth decay, a cavity can go away on its own if you practice good dental hygiene and promote the remineralization of your tooth enamel.
If you catch the early signs of a cavity, you can encourage the remineralization of your tooth minerals and reverse the cavity. But you can only do this in the first stages of cavity formation.
However, once you notice the symptoms of cavities, it’s probably too late to naturally reverse your cavity. That’s one reason good oral hygiene is important every day.
Cavity Prevention Tips
How to prevent cavities:
- The right toothbrush
- The right toothpaste
- Oil pulling
- Dietary changes
- Quit drinking or smoking
1. The Right Toothbrush
Finding the right toothbrush is simple when you know the science behind what makes a toothbrush effective. Once you get the right toothbrush, you can brush your teeth daily and effectively prevent tooth decay.
Use soft bristles. Hard bristles may remove marginally more plaque, but they can also damage your gums.
Use a triple-headed brush. Triple Bristle offers a revolutionary three-headed brush, which delivers a superior clean in half the time. A three-headed brush effectively cleans plaque, particularly when a caretaker is brushing another person’s teeth.
2. The Right Toothpaste
The right toothpaste is easy to find, as long as you know where to look.
Many experts recommend fluoride toothpaste to help fight tooth decay. However, fluoride toothpastes are not always a great first choice and can be toxic to the body if swallowed. And this is on top of the fluoride you consume through publicly fluoridated water.
Use a fluoride-free toothpaste. Other minerals have shown to remineralize teeth, like hydroxyapatite.
Triple Bristle offers customers a refreshing fluoride-free toothpaste in our store (includes free shipping). Our toothpaste also contains no sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which is a known skin irritant linked to canker sores.
Research shows that flossing before you brush is significantly more effective than brushing, then flossing.
We’ve got you! Triple Bristle offers a mint-flavored, unwaxed dental floss that slides between teeth with no fuss. There are 55 yards in a pack, and we offer free US shipping.
And if you’re having trouble getting motivated to floss, click here to find out how you can floss without hesitation.
4. Oil Pulling
What is oil pulling?Oil pulling is when a person swishes coconut oil around in his or her mouth, getting rid of harmful bacteria. Then, you spit the oil into the trash (because it solidifies when at room temperature) after a few minutes.
Some experts suggest that less than half a minute is acceptable.
Research shows that oil pulling may get rid of plaque and food particles that a toothbrush and flossing may miss.
Coconut oil is an anti-inflammatory painkiller.
5. Dietary Changes
Avoid sugary foods and foods that are processed or highly acidic. Manufacturers will often add sugar to their foods. Sweet foods contribute to tooth decay because the harmful bacteria in dental plaque feed off of sugars. Avoid sweet foods when you can.
Acidic and highly processed foods contribute to inflammation and the breakdown of enamel.
If you want dessert, brush and floss about 30-45 minutes after finishing your meal.
Reduce snacking. Snacking often includes sugary foods, bad for your teeth. Food particles from your snack can remain in between your teeth for a long time before you brush or floss. Plus, your teeth benefit from a “break” in which your saliva helps them remineralize.
Cut out sugary drinks. Fruit juice, sodas, energy drinks — they all contain dangerous amounts of sugar. Artificial sweeteners are not much better. Stick with water or unsweetened tea.
Eat more of these pro-oral health foods:
- Calcium-rich foods (seafood, dairy, nuts, broccoli, and cauliflower)
- Magnesium-rich foods (leafy greens, avocado, squash, and cacao)
- Phosphorus-rich foods (eggs, meat, and dairy)
- Vitamin D-rich foods (mushrooms, eggs, and certain seafood)
- Unsweetened herbal teas
- Xylitol gum
- Vitamin K2 foods (grass-fed/pastured meats, eggs, and cheeses)
- Fibrous foods high in prebiotics (leafy greens)
- Foods with naturally occurring probiotics (kvass, sauerkraut, and kimchi)
6. No More Drinking or Smoking
Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco are both bad for your oral health.
Alcohol contributes to the erosion of your tooth enamel, leading to cavities. Those suffering from alcoholism are at higher risk of tooth decay, gum disease, and lesions.
Smoking tobacco is horrible for your oral health in so many ways. It may lead to:
- Cavities, tooth decay
- Periodontitis (gum disease)
- Oral inflammation
- Saliva production dysfunction
- Stained teeth
- Cleft lip in offspring
- Cleft palate
- Oral cancer
Prevent Cavities for Overall Health
Preventing cavities is important for your overall health.
Your oral health is a reflection of your overall health and vice versa. If left untreated, cavities can turn into deep decay which causes severe pain and may necessitate a root canal. It can even lead to tooth loss.
Eventually, bacterial infection from your mouth can actually reach your bloodstream. This can lead to increased risk of heart disease!
It’s more important than ever to deal with cavities early on. And it’s easier than ever, too.
- Kulkarni, P., Singh, D. K., & Jalaluddin, M. (2017). Comparison of efficacy of manual and powered toothbrushes in plaque control and gingival inflammation: A clinical study among the population of East Indian Region. Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry, 7(4), 168. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5558249/
- Zimmer, S., Öztürk, M., Barthel, C. R., Bizhang, M., & Jordan, R. A. (2011). Cleaning efficacy and soft tissue trauma after use of manual toothbrushes with different bristle stiffness. Journal of periodontology, 82(2), 267-271. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20722532/
- Ashkenazi, M., Salem, N. F., Garon, S., & Levin, L. (2015). Evaluation of Orthodontic and Triple-headed Toothbrushes When Used Alone or in Conjunction with Single-tufted Toothbrush in Patients with Fixed Lingual Orthodontic Appliances. A Randomized Clinical Trial. The New York state dental journal, 81(3), 31-37. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26094361/
- Kalf?Scholte, S. M., Van der Weijden, G. A., Bakker, E. W. P., & Slot, D. E. (2018). Plaque removal with triple?headed vs single?headed manual toothbrushes—a systematic review—. International journal of dental hygiene, 16(1), 13-23. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28544459/
- Amaechi, B. T., AbdulAzees, P. A., Alshareif, D. O., Shehata, M. A., Lima, P. P. D. C. S., Abdollahi, A., … & Evans, V. (2019). Comparative efficacy of a hydroxyapatite and a fluoride toothpaste for prevention and remineralization of dental caries in children. BDJ open, 5(1), 1-9. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6901576/
- Skaare, A., Kjærheim, V., Barkvoll, P., & Rølla, G. (1997). Skin reactions and irritation potential of four commercial toothpastes. Acta Odontologica Scandinavica, 55(2), 133-136. Abstract: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9176662/
- Azcarate-Velázquez, F., Garrido-Serrano, R., Castillo-Dalí, G., Serrera-Figallo, M. A., Gañán-Calvo, A., & Torres-Lagares, D. (2017). Effectiveness of flossing loops in the control of the gingival health. Journal of clinical and experimental dentistry, 9(6), e756. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5474330/
- Torkzaban, P., Arabi, S. R., Sabounchi, S. S., & Roshanaei, G. (2015). The efficacy of brushing and flossing sequence on control of plaque and gingival inflammation. Oral Health and Preventive Dentistry, 13(3), 267-273. Full text: http://eprints.umsha.ac.ir/1730/1/2.pdf
- Shanbhag, V. K. L. (2017). Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene–A review. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine, 7(1), 106-109. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198813/
- Intahphuak, S., Khonsung, P., & Panthong, A. (2010). Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities of virgin coconut oil. Pharmaceutical biology, 48(2), 151-157. Full text: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/13880200903062614?src=recsys&
- Skafida, V., & Chambers, S. (2018). Positive association between sugar consumption and dental decay prevalence independent of oral hygiene in pre-school children: a longitudinal prospective study. Journal of Public Health, 40(3), e275-e283. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6166585/
- Touger-Decker, R., & Van Loveren, C. (2003). Sugars and dental caries. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(4), 881S-892S. Full text: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/78/4/881S/4690063
- Hujoel, P. P. (2013). Vitamin D and dental caries in controlled clinical trials: systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition reviews, 71(2), 88-97. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK127040/
- Priyanka, K., Sudhir, K. M., Reddy, V. C. S., Kumar, R. K., & Srinivasulu, G. (2017). Impact of alcohol dependency on oral health–a cross-sectional comparative study. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR, 11(6), ZC43. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5535480/
- Jiang, X., Jiang, X., Wang, Y., & Huang, R. (2019). Correlation between tobacco smoking and dental caries: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Tobacco induced diseases, 17. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6662788/