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How Long Can You Leave a Cavity Untreated?

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A female patient undergoing a procedure to fill her cavity as a dentist and dental hygenist hold dental equipment.

In the realm of oral health, the presence of a cavity, also known as tooth decay, can be a cause for concern. A cavity occurs when bacteria in your mouth produce acids that erode the enamel of your teeth. It can take months for cavities to cause significant damage; however, left untreated, cavities can progress and lead to more significant oral health issues. But just how long can you leave a cavity untreated before it becomes a serious problem? 

Leaving a Cavity Untreated

While daily brushing and flossing are vital for maintaining oral health, professional dental care should not be put on the back burner, especially when cavities may be present. 

If you are experiencing discomfort or pain, visit your dentist for an examination as soon as possible. Addressing cavities promptly can help prevent further damage. This is particularly important for children, who are more prone to developing cavities and whose teeth are still developing. 

While it can take months for a cavity to cause significant damage due to enamel being the hardest substance in the human body, prompt treatment is still important. 

Understanding the Progression of Cavities

It’s essential to understand how cavities develop and progress to comprehend the potential consequences of leaving a cavity untreated. Cavities typically start small as areas of demineralization on the tooth’s surface caused by acid erosion. The damage may be reversible at this stage through proper oral hygiene and remineralization techniques.

However, if the cavity is not addressed promptly, it can continue to advance. As the decay penetrates deeper into the tooth structure, it can reach the dentin, the layer beneath the enamel. At this point, the cavity may cause sensitivity and discomfort, particularly when consuming hot, cold, sweet, or acidic foods and drinks.

If the decay is still not treated, it can progress even further, reaching the innermost layer of the tooth called the pulp. The pulp contains nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue, and when it becomes infected, it can lead to intense pain, swelling, and abscess formation. In severe cases, untreated dental infections can spread to other parts of the body and pose serious health risks.

Factors Influencing the Progression of Cavities

The rate at which a cavity progresses can vary depending on several factors:

  • Oral hygiene habits: Regular brushing, flossing, and using fluoride-containing oral care products can help slow down the progression of cavities by removing plaque and strengthening tooth enamel.
  • Dietary habits: Consuming sugary and acidic foods and drinks can contribute to cavity formation by fueling bacteria in the mouth to produce acids that attack tooth enamel.
  • Overall oral health: Individuals with conditions that compromise their oral health, such as dry mouth (xerostomia) or weakened enamel, may be more susceptible to cavities and experience faster decay progression.
  • Genetics: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to cavities, making them more prone to tooth decay even with diligent oral hygiene practices.
Woman holding the side of her jaw in pain while brushing her teeth from a cavity that's been left untreated.

The Risks of Delaying Treatment

While it’s tempting to procrastinate or ignore dental issues, delaying treatment for cavities can have serious consequences:

  • Increased pain and discomfort: Untreated cavities can cause persistent toothache and sensitivity, making it difficult to eat, drink, or perform daily activities comfortably.
  • Risk of infection: As cavities progress, the risk of bacterial infection in the tooth pulp increases. If left untreated, dental infections can lead to abscess formation, swelling, and systemic complications.
  • Loss of tooth structure: Advanced decay may necessitate more extensive dental procedures, such as root canal therapy or tooth extraction, to address the damage. These treatments can be more invasive and costly than early cavity intervention.
  • Spread of infection: In severe cases, untreated dental infections can spread to neighbouring teeth, gums, and jawbone or even enter the bloodstream, posing a risk to overall health.
  • Aesthetic concerns: Left untreated, cavities may eventually lead to visible changes in the appearance of the affected teeth, such as discoloration, erosion, or structural damage, impacting smile aesthetics.

Common Treatments for Cavities 

  • Dental fillings: For early-stage cavities, dental fillings can restore the tooth’s structure and prevent further decay.
  • Root canal therapy: If the decay has reached the tooth pulp and caused infection, root canal therapy may be necessary to remove the infected tissue and save the tooth.
  • Extraction: In cases of severe decay or tooth damage, extraction may be the only viable treatment option to prevent the spread of infection to surrounding teeth and tissues.
  • Preventive measures: In addition to treating existing cavities, dentists can recommend preventive measures, such as fluoride treatments, dental sealants, and dietary modifications, to reduce the risk of future cavities.

The Path Towards a Healthy Smile

In summary, leaving a cavity untreated can lead to various oral health complications, from increased pain and discomfort to the risk of infection and tooth loss. While the progression of cavities can vary depending on individual factors, seeking timely dental care is essential to prevent further damage and preserve oral health. 

By prioritizing regular dental check-ups, practicing good oral hygiene habits, and addressing cavities promptly, you can maintain a healthy smile for years to come. At Sundance Dental Clinic, we provide dental exams and cleanings to help screen for cavities and provide a treatment plan that suits your needs. Request an appointment with us today to learn more about cavities and screening for cavities.

Written by Sundance Dental Clinic

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