“Fill ‘er up” is a perfect phrase to utter when your car is out of gas, your coffee cup is empty, or a tooth is exhibiting decay. And just like filling your gas tank or brewing a pot of coffee, there’s a relatively simple solution – a “fill-up” – for your aching tooth. It’s called a dental filling, and it’s the most requested dental service other than a routine check-up and cleaning.
What is a dental filling and how does it work?
A dental filling is just what it sounds like: something that fills an empty space – a cavity – in a tooth that has begun to decay. A decaying tooth, whatever the cause of the decay, is a weakened tooth. Filling the cavity is the simplest way to eliminate the decay, strengthen the injured tooth, and restore its natural look and feel.
Having a tooth filled is usually a single-appointment procedure. The area of your mouth where the target tooth is will be numbed with a local anesthetic, so your mouth will be pain-free, even when the numbing wears off. After removing all of the decay in the compromised tooth, and before inserting the filling material, your dentist will thoroughly clean the tooth and check to make sure the decay hasn’t reached the root area. After insertion, the filling material will be shaped and smoothed to fit the contours of the repaired tooth.
Is there more than one type of filling?
The earliest known dental filling was made of bitumen, a material currently used as a road surface. Fortunately, times have changed and so have the materials dentists use to fill cavities. There are several choices of materials to be used, depending on the size and location of the cavity, your insurance coverage, and the out-of-pocket cost of different fillings. Here’s a brief description of the materials today’s dentists use to fill teeth.
Many of us are most likely to be familiar with dental fillings made of gold or silver. Gold is more durable than silver, but silver is more common, because a gold filling can cost up to 10 times that of a silver filling. Although newer materials are available, the durability of metal fillings is an important factor still. A metal filling can last up to 15 years before it must be replaced.
One of the least expensive filling materials is amalgam, which has been in use by dentists since the late 1800s. Several metallic elements are combined to make amalgam, so amalgam fillings are quite strong. This makes them a good choice for cavities in your molars, because that’s where most of your chewing takes place.
Sometimes referred to as “resin fillings,” composite fillings are popular because they can be tinted to match the color of your teeth. (Since natural teeth are not pure white, ever.) Not quite as long-lasting as metal ones, composite fillings are still fairly durable and ideal for small cavities in teeth that aren’t subjected to significant chewing. Learn more.
Another material used to fill tooth cavities is ceramic, usually porcelain. Like composite fillings, ceramic fillings can be made to match your tooth’s color, with the advantage that they are rather less likely to show tooth stains over time. Ideal in some specific situations, ceramic fillings are, however, nearly as expensive as gold fillings.
A glass ionomer filling is a specialized filling that is sometimes used if the root of your damaged tooth has been compromised. It’s a blend of acrylic and glass that, when made into a dental filling, releases fluoride to help protect the tooth from further decay. This filling material is significantly less durable than other materials and may need to be replaced in as few as five years.
Can a dental filling ever be a problem?
Nothing, including a dental filling, is perfect. Nearly every filling — regardless of the material — eventually needs help.
A filling can separate from the tooth to which it’s attached, leaving behind a space where bacteria can hide and eventually cause additional decay. Such a situation can usually be repaired if caught early.
A filling can be cracked or damaged if you bite down on something hard — hard candy, for example, or large nuts — or if you’re hit in the face while playing a sport. Chewing on a damaged filling can cause a crack to widen or the filling to wear away (even fall out!).
If you notice either of these conditions, check in with our office as soon as possible.
How should I take care of a dental filling?
Treat a filled tooth as you do every other tooth. For a brief time after getting a filling, you may have some discomfort, but it will be short-lived and should not be used as an excuse to be less than conscientious about your oral health care. Maintain your normal dental hygiene routine of brushing and flossing. If you experience discomfort while brushing, you may want to switch to a toothpaste intended for sensitive teeth, at least for a while. There are many on the market and we’d be happy to help you choose the best one for you.
If you have a problem tooth, as well as for routine oral healthcare, we’re here to help. It’s easy to contact our office, and we look forward to serving all your dental needs.
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