Dealing with a cavity as an adult

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Few Americans make it to adulthood without getting some dental cavities.

In fact, for many people, cavities seem to be an inherent part of growing up.

While you may think your risk for cavities decreases in your adult years, your risk of tooth decay is not something you can simply outgrow. In fact, recent studies have shown that the percentage of American adults with cavities remains high even as overall oral health has improved.¹

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So, how can adults with cavities deal with tooth decay before it gets worse? Moreover, how can cavity pain be managed until your next dentist appointment?

How common are cavities in adults?

Despite what you might think, cavities are increasingly common in adults. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, as many as 92% of adults ages 20 to 64 have dental cavities in their permanent teeth.²

What are the causes of cavities?

Gum recession

As you age, gums begin to pull away from your teeth. Receding gums expose more of the tooth (and even the root if the recession is bad enough), forming pockets between the tooth and gum line. These areas make it easier for bacteria to flourish.

In addition to gum disease, vigorous tooth brushing can cause gum tissue to become swollen or damaged, exposing the sensitive tooth roots. When adults experience gum recession and damage, they’re more likely to develop cavities, especially if they aren’t brushing or flossing properly.

Since gum recession occurs gradually, most adults don’t realize they have a problem until they experience a cavity or tooth sensitivity. Your dentist can address gum recession and prevent further damage, but you will need to take action and schedule an appointment.³

Plaque buildup

Another common cause of adult cavities is plaque. Your mouth naturally contains bacteria, some of which thrive on certain types of sugar. If those sugars aren’t cleaned away, the bacteria begin to form plaque, which becomes a sticky film that coats your teeth. It can be especially hard to remove along the gum line and hard-to-reach areas like molars.

Plaque contains acids that remove your tooth’s minerals, damaging the outer enamel. When the enamel erodes, you’re experiencing the first stage of a cavity. The tooth decay continues to develop with the acid eating away at the enamel until it reaches the pulp or inner tooth material, leading to sensitivity and toothaches.⁴

Existing fillings

Existing fillings can contribute to new cavities. Fillings weaken over time, and when this happens, the filling loosens, allowing bacteria to accumulate in the space between the filling and tooth. This causes acid to build up, which in turn causes additional tooth decay.⁵

Keeping your fillings in good shape protects your teeth from further decay. Your dentist will check existing fillings at each appointment and determine whether you need a replacement.

Adult cavity prevention

Along with brushing and flossing, regular dental cleanings, and proper filling maintenance, adult cavities can be prevented with a dental sealant. Dental sealant serves as a barrier that can protect your teeth from cavities by keeping bits of food and bacteria from settling on the enamel. Both children and adults can get dental sealants, and the earlier you can get them, the better.

Sealants can also be used over areas of the tooth already experiencing early tooth decay. This helps prevent further damage and allows the dentist to keep an eye on the tooth during subsequent visits. Because sealants last for several years, they will need to be reapplied periodically, but a good dental plan typically covers the costs.

Managing cavity pain

Most people suspect they have a cavity when they experience a toothache. Cavities can cause severe pain when eating or when the tooth is exposed to hot or cold drinks, so it’s important to focus on pain management techniques until you can visit the dentist and address the issue.⁶

A topical analgesic applied to the affected area can help you experience immediate relief from a sore tooth. A natural alternative is clove oil, which has a similar effect. Alternatively, you can take over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen for a short period of time. Continue practicing good oral hygiene and switch to a sensitive toothpaste, if necessary, while waiting for your dental appointment.⁷

Remember that regularly scheduled dental exams are your best bet for cavity prevention. Invest in a good dental insurance plan so those crucial dental visits can happen now, not later.

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