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How Long Can You Leave a Cavity Untreated

Cavities are one of the most common dental conditions in children, teens, and adults. In most cases, cavities are generally easy to treat with simple dental fillings or crowns — if they're caught in time. While it can take some time for early tooth decay to develop into a full-blown cavity, many dentists prefer that patients treat their cavities as soon as possible vs. leaving them untreated.

If you have symptoms of a cavity and you're wondering exactly how long is too long to let it go untreated, this blog post is for you! Below, you'll learn more about cavity causes, symptoms, and their overall timelines.

What Is a Cavity?

Cavities are areas of tooth decay that develop on the teeth's chewing surfaces, roots, and around dental restorations such as fillings and crowns. Tooth decay occurs when sticky plaque releases acids that erode the tooth enamel. When the sugars in the foods you eat and beverages you drink mix with the bacteria that are naturally present in your mouth, plaque can form and stick to the tooth surfaces. Over time, the acids in the plaque can damage your tooth enamel to the point where a cavity develops.

How Do You Know If You Have a Cavity?

While a common belief is that cavities are black or brown, did you know that they actually start off as white spots? Referred to as early decay, these white spots are the first sign of a pending cavity. If you notice white spots or flecks on your teeth, the good news is that this type of tooth decay can often be reversed with fluoride toothpaste and fluoride treatments.
Aside from white specks that are often so mild they go unnoticed, you might not notice any signs of a cavity in its early stages. New cavities don't usually cause any painful or uncomfortable symptoms but as they progress, you may experience tooth sensitivity or pain when biting down. You may also notice the telltale dark spots or streaks on your tooth surfaces that don't come off when you brush your teeth.

What Happens If You Don’t Treat a Cavity?

One of the most important facts about cavities is that they don't go away on their own. Even if you have a slow-growing cavity, it should be treated at some point to prevent the decay from spreading. As a cavity spreads, it affects a larger portion of the tooth. This can make it difficult to treat with a standard dental filling.

In addition to forming a large cavity, progressing tooth decay can make its way deep into the tooth and expose the tooth roots. This can be extremely painful and increase the risk of infection. In some cases, untreated cavities can cause the tooth pulp to become severely inflamed or infected.

How long can you leave a cavity untreated

How Long Can You Delay Treatment on a Cavity Still in the Enamel?

In some cases, early signs of tooth erosion in the enamel can be successfully treated with fluoride toothpaste or surface filling materials. But once an actual cavity forms, dentists usually recommend treating it within a year. It's also important to note that timelines can vary depending on your specific dental needs. Some people have softer enamel than others, which can cause cavities to progress rapidly.

As a cavity grows, it can move from the enamel into the deeper tooth layers and eventually make its way into the pulp. The best way to determine how long you can delay treatment on an enamel cavity is to schedule a dental exam. Your dentist will take X-rays to check the size and progression of your cavity. If they feel you can wait before treatment, they'll give you an exact timeline.

How Long Can You Delay Treatment on a Cavity That Is in the Dentin?

Once a cavity begins to form in the dentin, it's important to treat it as soon as possible. The exact length of time between cavity formation in the dentin until it reaches the tooth roots can vary but this can sometimes happen in as little as 3 months. It's always best to follow the advice of your dentist when it comes to delaying treatment. They may recommend a "watch and wait" approach if the cavity has just started to form or they might suggest immediate treatment if they detect that your cavity is rapidly progressing.

How Long Can You Delay Treatment on a Cavity in the Pulp?

If your dentist diagnoses a cavity in the dental pulp, the sooner you receive treatment, the better! Pulp cavities usually require root canal treatment to prevent further damage to the tooth. During a root canal procedure, a dentist or dental specialist uses specialized tools to remove bacteria, decay, and damaged tissues from the inside of the tooth. Once the tooth is cleaned and treated, a large filling or crown is placed over the remaining tooth structure.

Causes of Cavities

Cavities develop when plaque forms on the teeth and releases acids that can eat away at the tooth enamel. The bacteria naturally present in your mouth feed on the sugars in the foods and beverages you consume, and the end result is dental plaque. Plaque is sticky, which makes it easier to adhere to tooth surfaces. 

Over time, plaque releases acids that cause demineralization, also known as tooth decay. As the tooth decay progresses, the acids eat through the deeper enamel layers, causing cavities. Plaque can be very stubborn, which is why brushing at least twice a day and after meals is so important. Brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste can help neutralize plaque and plaque acids and lower your risk of developing cavities.

How long can you leave a cavity untreated?

How Are Cavities Treated by Dentists?

During a cavity treatment procedure, the dentist uses a drill or other specialized dental tool to remove the decayed areas. Once the "cavity" portion of the tooth is effectively removed, the dentist fills the empty space with a metal or composite filling. For deep cavities in which a large portion of the tooth is removed, your dentist may recommend placing a dental crown to ensure the tooth surface is strong enough to withstand chewing and clenching pressure.  
If you're scheduled for cavity treatment and you're worried about pain, don't be! In most cases, filling procedures aren't painful. You may feel a slight pinch when the dentist numbs your gums and the drilling can feel a little strange. Still, you shouldn't feel any pain once you're all numbed up.

If you've got a toothache or you're concerned about a potential cavity, our teammates at Risas Dental are standing by and ready to assist! We offer affordable dental care with easy payment options for all budgets and credit types. Book an appointment today.

Frequently Asked Questions

What would be considered a dental emergency?

Some common dental emergencies include cracked or broken teeth, abscessed teeth, severe jaw pain, soft tissue injuries, and heavily bleeding gums. Similar to medical emergencies, a dental emergency is any situation that requires immediate treatment.

How do you know if a cavity has reached the root?

One of the most common signs of a cavity that's reached the root is throbbing pain in the affected area. You may feel pain or pressure when chewing, or your tooth might be sensitive to hot and cold. Tender, swollen gums surrounding the affected tooth are another common symptom of root cavities.

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