Cavity Symptoms – Can You Tell If You Have Tooth Decay?

Patients are always saying to us dentists: “Oh, I have decay? But I don’t have any pain there!” This article will look at the common tooth cavity symptoms, and help explain the fact that often there are none (until a lot of damage has occurred)!

A major problem when it comes to tooth decay is the misconception that if a cavity forms, one will become aware of it with some sort of pain or sensitivity. Conversely, many think that if they have no dental pain then they have no cavities.

In fact, the majority of dental decay does not give rise to any symptoms until the damage to the tooth is fairly substantial. Of course, this is a general rule and not always the case. But the key message to take from this article is that only by attending your dentist for regular check-ups can you be sure of having no oral diseases.

"Graphic showing three stages of tooth decay"

The graphic shows how cavities spread into the tooth first, leaving the outside intact.


What are the tooth decay symptoms to look out for?

OK, so we have established that most cavities cause problems only when relatively deep. Here is a list of the common signs to watch out for:

  • Pain or tooth sensitivity. Classically (but not always), sensitivity to cold things is more common to start with. As a cavity gets nearer the nerve, then hot foodstuffs may bring on toothache. Tooth pain that lasts beyond a few seconds indicates nerve damage – you may need root canal. Pain on biting down may indicate an abscess or a cracked tooth due to the decay.
  • Fractured tooth. This is often the first sign of a cavity. The decay eats away at the softer dentine, while the outer shell of enamel remains intact. So, one is unaware of the damage being done. Once there is insufficient support for the outer shell then it will break. You are left with a large hole that seems to have appeared overnight! Of course, the damage has been going on silently for months or years.
  • Loss of a filling. If an old filling falls out, decay underneath is often the cause. A filling does not make a tooth immune to decay!
  • Visual dental caries symptoms. Cavities are most common in the surfaces of the teeth that are out of sight. What does a cavity look like? If on front teeth ( like the ‘smooth-surface’ cavity pictured) it may be visible as brown/black staining to begin with, before a hole can be seen. Back teeth may appear darker if a cavity is present, although there can be other causes of the darkness such as a large filling.
Image of tooth decay

Visible cavities on front teeth


“So If I don’t get to the dentist regularly…?”

You guessed it… There could be dental decay present without your knowing it. If you don’t have symptoms now, you will have at some stage!

Again, the take-home message from this article is that cavity symptoms don’t occur until a fair degree of damage has been done. Only by visiting your dentist for regular check-ups can any decay be spotted and treated early.

Early cavity treatment is easier, cheaper and generally leads to a much better outlook for the affected tooth.

"Tooth decay above mirror"

Get to your dentist for treatment before a cavity gets this bad!


Further reading:

Prevention of tooth decay

Treatment to expect

Gingivitis symptoms

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