About 90% of adults have had at least one cavity. Those that visit the dentist regularly most likely get these cavities treated quickly. However, people who don’t like visiting the dentist or who can’t get regular dental checkups might wonder, how long can a cavity go untreated? The answer to this question is a bit complicated. Let’s take a closer look.
How Long Can a Cavity Go Untreated?
According to the CDC, about 26% of American adults have untreated tooth decay. To answer the question of how long a cavity can go untreated, it’s important to first understand how cavities form.
A cavity is a type of tooth decay. Cavities, also called dental caries, form when bacteria produce acids that create small holes in teeth. These bacteria and their acids tend to accumulate in the low points between teeth, such as the low spaces on the back molars.
As bacteria multiply and create more acids, they will bore deeper, larger holes in teeth. This will eat through the tough, outer layer of tooth enamel and begin to damage the softer tissues underneath. If these soft tissues become damaged, the tooth can become painful and brittle. If the decay gets worse, it can damage the tooth root, gums, surrounding teeth, and the nerves or surrounding tissues around the mouth and face. In some extreme cases, the infection can also spread to the brain, bloodstream, and other organs, or even cause death.
Regular brushing, flossing, fluoride from fluoridated water sources and toothpaste, as well as regular dental cleanings can all fight these bacteria, and prevent the acids from creating holes. This is why good dental hygiene and regular dental visits are so important.
If a cavity does start to form, how long can it go untreated before it causes serious damage?
Early Stages of a Cavity
When a cavity first starts to form, it creates a small hole in the tooth enamel. Exactly how long this takes depends on various factors. If you are regularly brushing and flossing your teeth, it may take several months for a cavity to dig into the deeper structures of teeth. You may notice a few symptoms of a cavity at this point, depending on how large or deep the cavity is. The tooth may be sensitive to heat and cold, you may feel soreness or pain, or you might notice a small hole in the tooth.
If you visit your dentist at regular six-month intervals, your dentist will likely detect the cavity at its early stages. When your dentist fills the cavity, they will remove the infected parts of the tooth, clean the bacteria away, and fill the hole created by the bacteria.
Late Stages of a Cavity
If a cavity goes untreated for a year or more, the small hole can become a serious problem. Once the bacteria eats through the tough tooth enamel, it can invade the softer structures of the teeth, like the tooth pulp and tooth root. The blood vessels that keep the tooth alive are located in this area. The nerves that allow you to feel your teeth also live in this area. As the cavity gets worse, the bacteria will infect the tooth pulp and tooth root, and can kill the tooth.
If a cavity goes untreated for a year, the tooth may die. The tooth will probably feel painful, sore, and may feel brittle or loose. You may also notice brown, dark yellow, or black discoloration around the tooth. You may also notice redness and swelling around the gums.
Long-Term Untreated Tooth Decay
If a cavity goes untreated for two years or longer, severe damage to the tooth is likely. You will notice discoloration around the tooth, swelling around the gums, and severe pain and sensitivity. The bacteria will probably have damaged the tooth root and pulp at this point. You may lose the tooth. Or, a root canal can save the tooth and remove the decay.
Just like any other infection, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body if it’s not treated. After two years of untreated tooth decay, the infection will probably spread to other teeth and the gums. You may also notice swelling around the cheek, jaw, or chin. At this stage, the untreated cavity would have seriously damaged the tooth, surrounding teeth, gums, and other structures.
The longer a cavity goes untreated, the more damage it will cause. If a cavity goes untreated for a year or more, it can cause tooth loss. Cavities that go untreated for longer periods of time can seriously endanger your health. If you think you have an untreated cavity and you live in the Las Vegas area, make an appointment today at a dental office near you.