What actually happens to your teeth if you don’t treat a cavity

Your teeth may decay and even fall out if you don’t treat a cavity. Eric Raptosh Photography/Getty Images
  • If you don’t treat a cavity, the decay will penetrate your enamel and then keep going deeper to the root of your tooth.
  • Not treating a cavity can result in tooth damage, infection, and even tooth loss.
  • You should see a dentist every six months and get a cavity filled as soon as it is discovered.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Tooth cavities are a common dental problem that can typically be resolved with a simple dental procedure, like a filling. However, when you leave a cavity untreated it can cause further decay and lead to dental complications that can be difficult to treat.

What is a cavity?

A cavity is a hole that develops in your tooth. Cavities form when bad bacteria in your mouth are exposed to acid, which typically comes from sugary or acidic foods. This demineralizes your tooth enamel, making it weak and prone to decay.

What the research says: About 92% of people between the age of 20 and 64 have cavities in their teeth — and 26% of them leave their cavities untreated.

People who have dry mouths or don’t get enough fluoride are more at risk of developing a cavity.

Some symptoms of a cavity include:

  • Pain
  • Bad breath
  • Inflammation of the gum around the tooth
  • White or brown stains on the tooth
  • A visible hole in your tooth

What happens if you don’t treat a cavity?

A cavity will not go away on its own. If you leave a cavity untreated, it only continues to grow and cause further decay to your tooth.

Here’s how a cavity can progress if you don’t treat it:

1. As a cavity forms, your enamel starts to weaken as a result of plaque buildup on your tooth. Enamel is the hard protective outer layer of your tooth. You can still avoid a cavity with flouride treatments done by your dentist.

2. When you first get a cavity, only the enamel of your tooth is affected. At this point, most people won’t feel any pain or sensitivity. You’ll probably only know you have a cavity through regular dental checkups.

3. If your cavity isn’t treated at the enamel stage, it then decays further and spreads to the middle layer of your tooth, which is called the dentin.

4. A cavity then grows down into the innermost layer of your tooth, where it affects your pulp and nerves.

5. Infected pulp can cause an abscess to form, which is typically painful and can cause temperature sensitivity. At this point, your dentist might attempt to save your tooth with a root canal, but if they can’t, the tooth will need to be extracted.

“If cavities are not treated, they continue to grow. Eventually, the decay will grow to a point where it undermines tooth structure and reaches the nerve of the tooth. This can cause more extensive tooth damage, infection, and tooth loss,” says John Grbic, DMD, professor of dental medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Centre.

Leaving a cavity untreated could also cause more serious complications. In very rare and extreme cases, if the infection from a decaying tooth isn’t treated properly, it may spread to your brain and could even be fatal.

How long can you leave a cavity untreated?

You should fill a cavity immediately after discovering it. The longer you leave it, the more the decay will penetrate your tooth and increase your risk for health complications.

However, many people may not even know that they have a cavity until they are in severe pain or the tooth has become severely damaged.

This is why regular dental checkups — every six months — are an important part of your oral hygiene routine, as your dentist is able to detect cavities at an early stage during a checkup.

How to treat a cavity

Cavities are treated according to the extent of damage it has caused to the tooth.

At an early stage, a cavity only needs to be treated with a simple dental filling or a crown. If the cavity has gotten to the innermost layer of your tooth and affected the pulp and nerves, a root canal procedure will have to be done.

“Cavities are treated by removing the decayed area and replacing it with a restoration like a tooth-coloured composite. If a cavity is extensive, then porcelain inlays, onlays, and crowns can be used as restorations,” says Grbic.

How to prevent cavities

Cavities can be prevented by maintaining a good oral hygiene routine and paying a visit to your dentists regularly.

While dental visits might not sound very pleasant, treating a cavity can be even more unpleasant.

According to Grbic, here are some tips that can help you prevent a cavity:

  • Flossing at least once a day — not just when there’s food stuck between your teeth, but before brushing your teeth
  • Brushing at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste — you should brush your teeth in the morning, night, and just after eating any sweet or acidic foods
  • Using fluoride mouthwash
  • Cutting down on the amount of sugary and acidic foods like sodas, sweets, alcohol and coffee you consume
  • Quitting smoking
  • Visiting a dentist for regular cleaning and checkups

Insider’s takeaway

Getting a cavity and having to visit your dentist might seem unpleasant, but it’s important to treat a cavity once it is detected to prevent further decay and dental complications. If a cavity isn’t treated it can cause severe pain, an infection, tooth loss, and in very rare cases, death.

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