What are Dental Fillings?
A dental filling is used to fill the hole created by the removal of a cavity. Cavities are infections in the surface of the tooth; the bacteria produce acids that eat away at the tooth enamel, causing a hole to form in the surface of the tooth. Your genetics, diet, and the particular mix of normal bacteria growing in your mouth (yes, we all have them!) all affect your chances of getting a cavity. When filling a cavity, the dentist removes infected tooth tissue with a drill, then fills the hole with a durable material.
Cavities often hurt. Even worse, cavities tend to continue growing until they’re filled. If you ignore a cavity, the infection could get big enough to become an abscess. In some cases, the bacteria can even spread to your bloodstream and lead to severe illness. So you really don’t want to wait to have your cavities filled.
When you’re considering any dental procedure, it’s important to know the risks and weigh them against the benefits. Once you understand the procedure, then you can make your decision about whether or not to proceed. To help you in your decision-making process, we have some information about the risks and benefits of having dental fillings at Dental Fillings: Risks and Benefits.
Please note that this page is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for qualified, individualized medical advice. You should discuss your potential dental procedure with your own dentist.
How it’s done
Typically, you will have an appointment for a dental exam, in which the dentist examines the teeth, finds and determines the extent of the cavities, and creates a plan for treating them. Usually, you’ll have a separate appointment after the exam for the actual procedure; it takes only one visit in most cases.
During the procedure, you’ll first receive local anesthetic (Novocain or a similar medication) to numb the tooth and surrounding area. The dentist often places guards in the mouth, over the surrounding teeth and gums. The dentist locates the cavity and drills out the infected tissue at its edges. If a non-bonded amalgam filling will be placed, additional drilling is needed to create a “ledge” under the cavity to hold in the filling, as it will not be stuck to the tooth but will simply stay in because of its shape. (The hole in the surface of the tooth will be smaller than the size of the filling underneath, so it doesn’t fall out.) After drilling is completed, the dentist prepares the material to be used for the filling.
You have two main choices in the material used to fill a cavity. Amalgam is the less expensive choice, and also lasts longer. It is a combination of metals, including mercury, silver, tin, zinc, and copper. Many people have concerns about the safety of amalgam because it contains mercury, although the FDA has stated that dental amalgam does not pose a danger to health. However, many dentists no longer perform fillings using amalgam.
The other choice in filling material is called composite resin. It is a mixture of plastic and fine glass particles. Composite is designed to mimic the appearance of normal teeth, and comes in a variety of colors so that it can be closely matched to the appearance of the tooth in which it is placed. While it’s more cosmetically desirable, it doesn’t last as long, and will need to replaced sooner.
If, despite knowing that there will be adequate pain control, you still feel anxiety about the procedure, sedation dentistry may be an option for you.
Preparing for the procedure
Choosing your dentist
Because cosmetic dentistry is not a recognized dental specialty, if a dentist calls himself or herself a “cosmetic dentist,” it doesn’t necessarily mean much. More importantly, you want to find out whether this particular dentist has experience performing the procedure you’re interested in. It’s at least as important to find a dentist with whom you feel comfortable, who listens to you, tries to understand your goals, and answers your questions. Referrals from friends and family, especially if they’ve had the particular procedure you’re considering, can be especially valuable.
Planning for the Cost
Of course, you’ll want to know the cost of your procedure, whether insurance will cover it, and how you’ll finance it. For more, visit our Dental Fillings Cost page.
The local anesthesia takes a few hours to fully wear off after the procedure. (Any sedation that you received may wear off faster or slower, depending on the type; see the Sedation Dentistry page.) After the anesthetic wears off, there may be some soreness in the filled tooth. The tooth may also be sensitive to hot and cold (particularly if a metal filling was chosen) and to pressure. The soreness and sensitivity may last for several days or weeks. In most cases, these will eventually disappear and the treated tooth will feel just like your other teeth.