Cavities and fractures pose a serious risk to dental patients’ smiles. If they aren’t addressed quickly and correctly, they can cause more substantial tooth decay and damage. Thankfully, dental fillings offer a convenient and affordable solution.
What Are Dental Fillings?
Dental fillings offer a means of filling in gaps and holes in decayed or damaged tooth enamel. A well-placed filling will restore the tooth to its normal function and prevent bacteria from entering the cavity to cause further decay. Fillings are made from artificial substances and, with proper care, can last as long as 12 years before they must be replaced.
When to Get Dental Fillings
There are four primary applications for dental fillings. A dentist may recommend this procedure if a patient’s tooth enamel:
- Is decayed but has not exposed the inner pulp to bacterial infection
- Has fractured or chipped, leaving the tooth prone to further decay
- Is showing signs of serious wear
- Or needs to be evened out to improve his or her bite pattern.
The only way to find out for sure if a filling is the best option is to schedule a consultation with a licensed dentist. The dentist will evaluate the source of the damage and its extent to determine whether a filling will alleviate the problem.
Types of Filling Materials
All dental fillings are made from synthetic materials designed to protect the tooth’s pulp and enamel from decay and wear. There are many materials to choose from, though not all dentists offer the same selections.
Composite Resin Fillings
Today’s most common type of dental filling is called a composite resin filling. These tooth-colored fillings are designed to mimic the appearance of the patient’s natural tooth color, making them perfect for areas of the mouth that are visible when people open their mouths.
While composite resin fillings are very popular, they aren’t ideal for all applications. They’re more likely to chip and wear than some other filling types and are prone to staining. Composite resin fillings typically last 3 to 10 years.
Silver-colored amalgam fillings used to be most dentists’ go-to, and they’re still relatively popular today. Amalgam fillings are wear-resistant and inexpensive. The downside is, they’re also less discreet than composite resin fillings.
There has also been some debate in recent years over the safety of amalgam fillings. The material used to make them contains elemental mercury. However, extensive clinical testing has led the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to declare them safe for use in adults and children over the age of six. Most dentists still agree that they are a good option for filling large cavities or repairing damage to patients’ rear teeth.
Though gold fillings are less common than amalgam or composite resin alternatives, they do have a niche market. These admittedly much more expensive fillings may require multiple visits to the dentist and laboratory manufacturing, but they’re also well-tolerated and extremely long-lasting. While amalgam fillings may last up to 12 years, gold fillings can last over 20.
Porcelain fillings serve a slightly different purpose from the alternative materials described above. They’re used as inlays and bonded to a patient’s tooth to restore its appearance following significant discoloration or aesthetic damage. The cost of porcelain fillings is similar to that of gold.
One, Two, and Three-Surface Fillings
Aside from material, there’s another important distinction between different types of dental fillings: how many surfaces they cover. Every tooth has five surfaces that could experience damage or decay. Patients can get:
- Mesial (front) fillings
- Distal (back) fillings
- Ligula (left side) fillings
- Facial (right side) fillings
- Or occlusal (top) fillings
One-surface fillings are small and cover just one side of a tooth. Two-surface fillings cover both a side and the top or two sides. Three-surface fillings are uncommon, but dentists may recommend them for some cases. If a patient’s tooth is damaged on three or more sides, dentists generally recommend crowns instead of fillings.
What to Expect
The first step patients should expect, regardless of what type of filling they need, is to undergo a thorough oral examination. During this exam, the dentist will evaluate the patient’s teeth, gums, and bone structure to ensure that a dental filling is the right treatment option. In some cases, the dentist can perform the procedure during the same visit. In others, patients will have to make a follow-up visit to have their fillings placed. Here’s what to expect during the appointment:
1. Application of Local Anesthetic
Placing a filling is a relatively simple and straightforward procedure. Dentists begin by applying local anesthetics to the affected area to ensure that it will also be a pain-free experience.
2. Preparation of the Tooth
The dentist will use hand-held instruments to prepare the patient’s tooth. This part of the process involves removing decayed or damaged enamel and cleansing the area to ensure that there are no debris or bacteria left behind.
3. Placement of the Filling
If patients choose an amalgam or a composite resin filling, the dentist can prepare the material and place it during the same visit. He or she will first isolate the tooth to keep it clean and dry before applying first a specialized dental adhesive, then the filling material, to the prepared area.
4. Finishing the Filling
Before the filling hardens, the dentist will shape it to match the patient’s natural tooth and bite pattern. Patients can help their dentists by mentioning it if anything feels unusual. Once the filling is shaped correctly, the dentist will use a hand-held light to harden the filling material.
5. After-Care for Dental Fillings
Patients should expect the filled tooth to be sensitive to extreme heat and cold for up to a week. Mild pain and soreness are not uncommon after the anesthetics wear off, but patients should call their dentists if the pain persists for more than a few days.
Dental fillings offer an easy way to address decay, wear, and some types of acute damage. The procedure is simple and pain-free, and having the filling placed early can avoid the need for more substantial restoration work. Patients who are experiencing tooth pain should call their dentists to schedule an exam as soon as possible.