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How Long Can You Leave a Cavity Untreated?

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A man applying pressure to his jaw; he is experiencing jaw pain possibly caused by an untreated cavity.

Cavities, also known as tooth decay, are a common but concerning dental issue. Many cavities are treatable with help from your dentist, but they can become a bigger issue without their help. With the damage cavities can do, many patients wonder how long they can go untreated. 

There is no specific timeline for how long you can leave a cavity untreated. Cavities can develop without you knowing, but the deeper bacteria goes into a tooth, the faster the problem worsens. Depending on the initial damage, cavities can be left untreated for months to years before a tooth is “too far gone.”

While tooth decay can take time to worsen, proper hygiene and regular dental visits can help protect your smile. 

Tooth Decay Can Sneak Up on You

There is no common timeline for cavity formation—it can take months to years for a cavity to develop and damage a tooth. 

Every patient is different, and various factors can determine how fast a cavity develops. However, tooth decay can sneak up on you. Many patients may not notice the early signs of tooth decay if they skip visiting the dentist. 

Some common factors that can influence cavity formation include: 

  • Location of the cavity
  • Tooth enamel thickness and overall health
  • Acid levels in the mouth
  • How frequently someone is exposed to acids from foods and drinks
  • Dental hygiene

What Causes Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay is a common dental problem that can cause discomfort and pain if not treated in time. It occurs due to plaque buildup, a sticky and colourless film of bacteria that forms on your teeth. 

Plaque starts forming within minutes of eating or drinking something sugary or starchy. If plaque is not eliminated through brushing and flossing, it starts attacking the enamel of your teeth, the hard outer layer that acts as a barrier against cavities and decay. 

What Are the Stages of Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay can be a sneaky problem. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of tooth decay. Damage to your tooth typically happens in 5 stages over several months to even years.  

The stages of tooth decay include: 

  • Demineralization: Your enamel is one of the hardest surfaces in your body, but it’s still susceptible to damage. The bacteria in plaque can slowly eat away at the minerals in your enamel, leading to tooth decay. 
  • Enamel decay: Bacteria can eat through your enamel if tooth decay is left untreated. When the enamel is weakened enough, you develop a cavity. 
  • Dentin decay: Dentin sits underneath your enamel and is less resistant to decay. Your tooth worsens faster after bacteria enter its inner layers.
  • Pulp damage: Bacteria can eventually reach the pulp, the inner layer of the tooth filled with nerves and blood vessels. Tooth decay can damage the tooth and cause swelling, pressure, and pain. 
  • Abscess formation: If tooth decay progresses far enough, an abscess can develop near the bottom of your tooth. These abscesses are more than painful—they can significantly affect your health. Sometimes, your dentist may need to remove an abscessed tooth to prevent further complications. 

While tooth decay can lead to serious complications for your dental health, you can help prevent this damage from occurring with proper hygiene. 

How Can You Prevent Tooth Decay?

A woman flossing her teeth in front of a bathroom mirror.

While your dentist can help treat cavities, preventing them from developing is ideal. You can prevent plaque formation through your daily hygiene, like brushing and flossing your teeth, but other tips can help reduce the risk of tooth decay. 

There are several ways you can help prevent tooth decay

  • Brush your teeth: Brushing your teeth is one of the most important things you can do to prevent tooth decay. Brush your teeth for at least 2 minutes twice daily. 
  • Floss daily: Flossing should not be an optional part of your daily hygiene routine. Floss at least once daily in the evening, thoroughly cleaning between teeth. 
  • Limit sugar: Sugary foods and drinks can increase your risk of tooth decay. Limit how much of these foods you consume, or make sure you clean your teeth after having them. 
  • Regularly visit your dentist: Dental exams and cleanings are essential for protecting oral health. Daily brushing and flossing are crucial, but exams and cleanings can help identify problems as early as possible and remove plaque and tartar from causing further damage. 

How Can You Treat Tooth Decay?

If cavities have already formed, you will need to have them treated. Thankfully, your dentist has many ways to do this. Depending on severity and location, they can recommend the best treatment for your cavities. 

The different ways to handle a cavity include: 

  • Fillings: Fillings are the most common treatment for cavities. Your dentist removes decay from the tooth before filling the tooth with another material, like composite resin.  
  • Crowns: Your dentist may recommend a crown if decay affects a large area of your tooth. They remove the decayed parts of the tooth before placing a crown or a small cap over the tooth to help protect it from future damage. 
  • Root canals: A root canal can rescue a tooth with significant tooth decay. Your dentist deep cleans the tooth and its roots to remove decay and then fills it to prevent future complications. 
  • Removal: When tooth damage is too severe, your dentist will extract the tooth and recommend an artificial replacement. 

Don’t Let Cavities Settle In

Tooth decay is a common but treatable problem. However, you can help prevent cavities with daily brushing, flossing, and regular dental exams and cleanings. Your dentist is here to help maintain your oral health. Contact Arch King West Dental if you experience signs of a cavity.

Written by Arch Dental

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