A dental filling is used to fill a cavity (a hole that has formed in your teeth) or other damage such as a chipped tooth. Cavities get bigger over time, so the sooner they’re spotted and filled, the less likely you are to have problems later. That’s why regular check-ups are important.
Without treatment, a cavity or chipped tooth can lead to toothache, bad breath, infection, and even the fracturing or loss of your tooth.
How do you know if you need a dental filling?
People of all ages, even young children, may need a tooth filling. Perhaps you have a nagging toothache, sudden pain when you bite down, or sensitivity to hot and cold. You may even have noticed a cavity, or food getting caught in a damaged tooth.
Reasons for needing a tooth filling
- Tooth decay – This is the most common cause of fillings. Plaque forms when bacteria feed on the sugars and starches left on your teeth by food or drink. The acids in plaque soften and dissolve your enamel (the hard-protective coating on your teeth), causing tiny holes which then grow bigger.
- Acid erosion – Your protective enamel coating can get worn away by acids in certain foods and drinks, or with some medical conditions like reflux or hiatus hernia.
- Chipping – You might have a broken or chipped tooth as part of an injury, or after eating something very hard. This can expose the inner parts of the tooth and lead to erosion over time.
- Abrasion and attrition – This is when teeth get worn, perhaps if you brush them too aggressively or if you grind your teeth.
What kind of fillings are available?
The type of treatment you need will depend on how much damage there is, and which tooth is affected. Your dentist will go through any options with you:
- Amalgam – These traditional silver-coloured fillings are made from a combination of metals including silver, tin and copper. Amalgam is very hard-wearing, so it’s ideal for fillings in your back teeth. Amalgam fillings can last for 20 to 40 years, as long you take good care of your teeth. If you’re pregnant, your dentist will probably advise against an amalgam filling, but they can talk to you about this.
- Composite – Composite fillings are what people often call ‘white fillings’, but actually they can be matched closely to the colour of your teeth. They look natural, so they’re great if your filling will be visible when you smile, laugh or talk.
- Inlays and overlays – If a standard filling isn’t suitable, your dentist may recommend an inlay or overlay (sometimes called onlays, too). They’re more suitable for larger chewing surfaces, such as your back teeth. Inlays fit into the hole in your tooth, while overlays build up the shape of the tooth. They can be made from metal, composite or porcelain. Porcelain may be ideal if you’re looking for something that’s practically invisible.
If the tooth cavity is very deep, or the centre of your tooth is damaged, you may need root canal treatment to avoid having the tooth out. Although often called ‘root canal fillings’, these aren’t the same as a standard fillings.