Everything You Need to Know About Cavities

What is the best route to preventing and dealing with cavities? Understanding as much as you can about them.

In this article, we’ll explain the ins and outs of cavities to give you a better idea of the kind of dental dilemmas that cavities can be (and lead to).

It’s important to remember that cavities aren’t just part of your dental health; they’re part of your overall health and wellness, too.

So, let’s dive in.

We’ll discuss the anatomy of a cavity, why they happen, and the signs you might be dealing with cavities. We'll even share advice on how you can mitigate your risks of getting cavities.


  • Understanding cavities is crucial for preventing and managing them effectively.
  • Cavities aren't just a dental issue; they can impact overall health and well-being.
  • Cavities, also known as tooth decay or caries, are damaged areas in the hard surfaces of teeth.
  • Tooth decay is primarily caused by bacteria feeding on plaque and producing acids.
  • Factors like diet, oral hygiene habits, age, and medical conditions can increase cavity risk.
  • Recognizing signs such as tooth sensitivity, pain, visible holes, or discoloration is important.
  • Untreated cavities can lead to severe dental problems like infections and abscesses.
  • Regular dental visits, good oral hygiene, and a balanced diet can help prevent cavities.
  • Using fluoride products, flossing, and considering sealant treatments are preventive measures.
  • Dental discount plans can help manage costs and ensure regular dental care.


The Comprehensive Guide to Cavities: Everything You Need to Know

What is a Cavity?

Most people–children, teens, and adults alike–have heard about the woes of cavities. Whether you’ve had cavities before yourself, know someone who’s dealt with them, or have simply heard that drilling sound from the office around the corner when you visit your dentist, you know they’re a common problem.

But ask yourself–do you really know what a cavity is? And further–do you know what causes it, how it forms, and what you can do to prevent them?

Let’s start with the most basic question: what is a cavity?

In the most basic terms, a cavity is a decayed part of a tooth that has been damaged by dental plaque.

In more complicated, dental speak, a cavity is tooth decay–which is also called caries or cavities.

These are the specific, damaged areas in the hard surfaces of your teeth. Often, they turn into tiny openings, holes, or pit-like formations that can lead to things like tooth loss, infections, toothaches and more.

To make things even more complicated, there are different types of cavities, too. The main lesson here? None of them are good–and you’ll want to make sure you manage whichever kind you have.

How and Why Cavities Form

There are several causes of cavities. But first, let’s talk about how cavities form.

Tooth decay happens when a certain type of bacteria in your mouth–the kind that thrives on refined carbohydrates and sugars–produces acids.

Those acids attach themselves to the enamel of your teeth (the hard outer layer), then work their way into the inner layers of your teeth to get to the dentin (that soft mineral that lives inside your teeth). 

Though every cavity (and patient) is different, this is generally how the process happens:

  1. A clear, sticky film that coats your teeth (known as dental plaque) forms and the bacteria start feeding on that plaque. Plaque that isn’t removed from your teeth becomes tartar–a harder-to-remove version of plaque that protects the bacteria.
  2. Once the plaque takes hold of your teeth, it starts working its way toward the inner minerals of your tooth. That effort causes erosion–those tiny spaces or pits. Once plaque has reached the dentin (that inner mineral in your tooth), its access to that soft material translates to a more painful experience.
  3. If nothing is done to treat the cavity, the plaque continues to wreak havoc on your tooth. It can damage the pulp inside your teeth (what your inner material is called), cause issues with the nerves and even affect the root, causing pain.

So, what exactly can cause cavities to occur? What kicks off this process?

In short, a variety of things. All sorts of people with all sorts of different habits can be at risk for cavities.

Specifically, those who have a diet rich in sweets, sugars, and refined carbs, those who have minimal oral hygiene; those with no access to fluoridated water supplies; children and older adults; and even those who have a reduced salivary flow for other medical reasons. 

These factors, like the additional ones listed below, can increase the likelihood of cavities in patients.

  • Excess snacking or drinking (sugary or sweet things)
  • Back teeth that collect food particles
  • Insufficient dental hygiene habits (not flossing, not brushing)
  • Worn out fillings
  • Heartburn (the excess acid can wear away the enamel of your teeth)
  • Eating disorders

The Top Signs You’re Dealing with a Cavity

Cavities are tricky. Often, they’re not detectable until their symptoms become serious and the decay is larger and more obvious. How can you catch a cavity before it becomes too serious? You need to know how to recognize the signs.

Though the symptoms of cavities vary between people, there is some overlap for most patients.

If you have any (or several) of these dental issues, you might have a cavity.

  • Sudden or spontaneous tooth sensitivity
  • Ache or pain in a specific tooth
  • Pain when you chew, bite down or touch the tooth
  • Visible holes or pits in any part of your tooth
  • Sensitivity or pain when drinking or eating hot, cold or sweet things
  • Any sort of tooth discoloration–yellow, brown, gray or black
  • Excessive bad breath you can’t seem to get rid of

As an important note, these symptoms can point to other dental issues, too. The best way to determine if you’re dealing with a cavity is to make an appointment with a dentist you trust.

The Dangers of Untreated Cavities

If a cavity is left untreated, it will grow larger, affect deeper layers, and become a more substantial dental (and overall health) problem. If cavities are left to continue to break down your teeth, you could end up dealing with other dental issues, like:

  • Exacerbated pain
  • Destruction of inner tooth pulp
  • Peridontitis (a more serious gum disease)
  • Development of puss / abscessed tooth
  • Increased risk of broken or damaged teeth

Most of these issues lead to more pain, more inconvenience and, unfortunately, more serious procedures that end up costing you more money to resolve.

Cavities Affect More Than Your Dental Health: Here’s How

There’s no denying it–having a cavity is inconvenient and has the potential to be quite painful. But a cavity is more than just a nuisance; it can have a dramatic impact on your dental health as well as your overall health and well-being.

If left untreated, cavities can cause pain and infections that can cause issues with speaking, eating and drinking. More seriously, untreated cavities left to tear down your teeth can lead to severe infections called abscesses.

In absolute worst-case scenarios, cavities can be fatal. We’ll be very clear–this is incredibly rare, but it can (and has happened) when a severe cavity and subsequent abscess is left untreated.

Cavity Prevention: What You Can Do to Protect Against Cavities

Now that you have a solid understanding of tooth decay and how cavities form, you might be wondering– “what can I do to avoid cavities at all costs?”

There are several routes you can take to ensure that you’re mitigating the risk of cavities forming in your teeth.

That being said, it’s important to note that even if you take proper care of your teeth and do “everything right,” you can still end up with a cavity. According to some research, there could be a link between tooth decay issues–like cavities–and genetics.

Abide by these dental tips to keep your teeth clean, plaque-free and healthy.

Preemptive & Regular Dentist Visits

The best way to avoid cavities?

Routinely visit your dentist for regular checkups. Yes, there are things you can do at home to help you mitigate the risk of tooth decay.

Ultimately, though, only a dentist can examine your teeth and help you recognize even the most subtle signs of cavities. Schedule–and stick to–regular visits with a dentist you trust. Routine cleanings can help you avoid plaque and tartar that could otherwise create damaging decay.

(Looking for a way to manage the costs of dentist visits? Check out Carefree Dental and our dental discount plans–we can help you save on each visit).

Stick to a Non-Negotiable Dental Hygiene Plan

Work with your dentist to create a schedule that you stick to. Determine how often to brush, floss, rinse with mouthwash and implement more hands-on cleaning methods. If you and your dentist can create a plan that helps you target plaque in your problem areas, you can likely avoid the buildup that causes cavities.

Floss Often

Flossing 1-2 times a day can help break up that harmful plaque before it turns into tartar and attacks your teeth. Make sure you’re flossing thoroughly at least once a day.

Use Toothpaste or Mouthwash with Fluoride

Fluoride is proven to help strengthen teeth and prevent tooth decay. If you have access to water treated with fluoride, you’re likely on the right track. Adding toothpaste with fluoride or mouthwash that contains fluoride can also be a helpful way to mitigate your risk of tooth decay.

Avoid Consuming an Abundance of Sugar

Because tooth decay is rooted in bacteria that feed off sugar, it’s best to minimize sugary, acidy, and refined carbohydrate-heavy drinks and snacks–especially if you traditionally struggle with cavities and tooth decay.

Consider Sealants

Talk with your dentist about sealant treatments that can be brushed onto the hard, chewing surfaces of your teeth to help prevent tooth decay. These treatments are placed on your teeth, then hardened using special tools at your dentist’s office to act as a protective barrier between your mouth’s bacteria and those biting surfaces (where tooth decay can form).\

Lower Your Cavity Costs With Dental Discount Plans

Regular visits to your dentist are necessary but can end up being costly. Investing in discount dental savings plans or discount dental plans can give you the additional support and cost-saving benefits you need to ensure you’re caring for your teeth and avoiding cavities.

Investing in a dental discount plan can help you save–whether it’s your primary dental care savings plan or used as a complement to your dental insurance to fill the gaps.

Remember, listening to your body’s red flags and seeing your dentist at the first sign of a cavity can help you mitigate the risk of more tooth decay and ensure you’re healthy and happy. Don’t let the uncertainty of dental costs keep you from caring for your teeth.

Need to see a dentist? Activate your Carefree Dental discount plan immediately to help you save 15-50%* at the dentist. Want to know if your dentist participates in our dental discount plan? Check to see if your dentist is a participating provider in our discount provider network.

*Per visit, in most instances, on services. Actual costs and savings vary by provider, service and geographical area.

The Carefree Dental blog is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The text and pictures within the content are intended for information purposes only. Readers should consult with a licensed dentist or healthcare professional before seeking treatment.

The Carefree Dental Card is not insurance and Carefree Dental is not an insurance provider.

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