Dentists can diagnose tooth decay with a basic examination that includes asking questions about tooth pain, a visual examination of the teeth and the mouth, probing the teeth to detect soft areas, and reviewing dental x-rays. These regular dental checkups are important, as they can allow dentists to identify any present dental conditions while they are still in their earlier stages, before they become too serious to readily or easily treat. When cavities are treated before they become a source of pain, extensive treatment can often be avoided.
Treatment options for cavities vary, depending on their severity and your needs. In their earliest stages, cavities can be treated with fluoride. Professional fluoride treatments may reverse cavities in their early stages by restoring the enamel on the teeth. These clinical, topical treatments contain high concentrations of fluoride -- far more than any commercially available fluoride -- and may be offered in the form of liquid, gel, foam, or varnish that is applied directly to the teeth.
Dental fillings, also called dental restorations, are the most common option when tooth decay has worsened beyond its very earliest stages. Dental fillings can be made of any one of a number of materials, including composite resins that match the color of the natural tooth; porcelain; or a dental amalgam that is made up of several different materials. Your dentist will choose which material to use based on the location of the cavity and the desires of the patient.
In cases of weakened teeth or more serious tooth decay, a dental crown may be the preferred treatment option. A dental crown is a custom-fitted cap that covers over the entire natural crown of the tooth. First, the decayed area is drilled away with a dental drill; if necessary, a portion of healthy tooth may also be removed, to ensure that the crown will fit properly over the entire tooth. Crowns are made of porcelain, gold, resin, porcelain fused to metals, or other materials. You and your dentist can decide what crown material is most appropriate for your tooth and for your budget.
If decay reaches the very interior of the tooth, the pulp, your dentist may recommend a root canal treatment. A root canal treatment is a therapeutic treatment that aims to save an infected or significantly damaged tooth instead of extracting it. The infected pulp is removed from the inside of the tooth, and the inside of the tooth is cleaned out and smoothed. Then, antiseptic medication is often applied to the inside of the tooth to destroy any remaining infection and prevent further infection from forming, and finally, the inside of the tooth is packed with inert material to replace the pulp.
Finally, if it is determined that the tooth is so significantly decayed that it cannot be repaired, restored, or rescued by any of these means, the dentist may need to extract the tooth. When teeth are extracted, they leave a gap that can allow the other teeth to shift. If possible, this should be prevented by having a dental implant placed or getting a bridge that can replace the missing tooth.