How Long Can You Leave a Cavity Untreated?

Dental Health
By: Spirit Dental
April 28, 2020

A middle age man sitting on the couch reading Spirit Dental's guide about leaving cavities untreated

Do you think you might have a cavity because you have a lot of sensitivity, or maybe even a toothache that won’t go away? Are you avoiding going to the dentist? Or have you been told that you have a cavity, but you’re avoiding getting it drilled and filled? Unfortunately, that’s a really bad idea.

What happens when cavities are left untreated? Do they just stay the same, or can they get worse? We cover the basics below so you can better understand why it’s always best to address any cavities that you’re dealing with.

Tooth Decay: Here’s How It Progresses

Let’s start by covering the stages of tooth decay so you can see how a minor problem can turn into a major one if you don’t take care of it in time.

  1. It starts with demineralization, or the weakening of your enamel, which is the hard outer layer of your teeth. At this point, you might be able to get fluoride treatments at your dentist’s office to help give the enamel a boost of strength. You can also eat healthy foods that could help remineralize the teeth, while avoiding foods that are acidic or sugary. And you can step up your oral hygiene game to be even more diligent with brushing and flossing daily at home.
  2. If your enamel continues to weaken, decay will result. You might start to feel some tooth sensitivity, and your dentist will notice a small cavity in the outermost layer of the tooth upon taking some X-rays. Treatment at this stage would probably be a small filling, which would stop the progression.
  3. If you don’t stop decay with a filling in time, it might move into the next layer of your tooth, which is the dentin. Sensitivity, such as when you chew, may be more obvious, and your dentist will be able to see the cavity on an X-ray. A larger filling will likely be needed, and you might even need a crown.
  4. Let’s say you still haven’t taken any action. Well, the decay can then make its way into the inner portion of the tooth, known as the pulp. By now, you might even feel a toothache, and your dentist may tell you that you need a root canal to clean out the decay and infection, along with a crown to restore the look of your tooth.
  5. The last and most severe stage of the decay would be when it goes so deep that it causes an abscess at the roots under your gums. You may or may not be in a lot of pain, and there might be swelling. To resolve this serious problem before it escalates further, you might need a root canal, surgery to drain the abscess, or a tooth extraction.

Note: At these various stages of decay, you may not feel pain or it may not be intense, so don’t go by how much discomfort you feel. Instead, continue seeing your dentist regularly to catch problems that you might not even be aware of.

The Complications That Could Arise from Leaving Cavities Untreated

You already know that leaving a cavity untreated will only give it the chance to continue getting worse and worse until you risk developing an infection and losing the tooth. But there are other complications to be aware of as well.

  • Remember, you might not feel any sensitivity until the cavity has reached the dentin layer of the tooth. Then, if left untreated, you’ll likely experience increasing amounts of sensitivity when you consume hot or cold foods and beverages. That’s because, as the decay gets deeper into the tooth, the nerves will become more exposed.
  • More pain, and more frequent pain, even when you chew on soft things, is another complication. The pain might come on quickly, and it might happen again and again. It might also radiate to other parts of your mouth. Keep in mind that, once a cavity reaches the dentin, it can progress even more quickly than it did in the enamel because the inner parts of the tooth are softer.
  • Once bacteria reaches the pulp, where you’ll find blood vessels and nerves, that’s when infection can occur. Complications might include persistent, severe pain, as well as symptoms like fever and a bad taste in your mouth.
  • Left alone, an infection in your tooth might spread to your jawbone, creating even bigger problems. But it doesn’t even stop there because there is the potential that it could enter the bloodstream and spread to other parts of your body too. Yikes!
  • As decay progresses, there’s a bigger risk of chipping or breaking the tooth. And as an infection worsens, there may also be pus around the tooth, and it might drain from a swollen and red area of the gums. Ick!

That Little Cavity Will Keep Growing If Left Untreated!

The bottom line is this: once decay has taken hold, it is difficult to halt it. And leaving even a minor cavity untreated might lead to nasty complications down the road. That’s why it’s best to see your dentist regularly for checkups, as doing so can help you find out if you have a cavity sooner rather than later. Once you know that you have a cavity that needs to be fixed, it’s best to do so ASAP.

Worried about being able to afford seeing the dentist often enough, and being able to afford treatments like fillings for cavities? Check out the Spirit dental insurance plans that are surprisingly low-cost yet provide comprehensive coverage that will put your mind, and your wallet, at ease.


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