Your simple guide to the world of dental fillings

Your simple guide to the world of dental fillings

Are you looking for more information on dental fillings? Perhaps wondering how to prevent fillings, why you may need a filling or how long your filling will last? In this article Vitality clears up the muddy waters surrounding these sometimes misunderstood dental options, so you can feel empowered to make the right decisions for your dental hygiene.

What is a filling?

A filling is one of the most common dental procedures you’ll ever encounter. It’s a fast, precision task that your dentist will have repeated over and over throughout their career. A filling comprises of a dense, stable and mouth-safe substance that is used to pack holes in the teeth. This re-creates the smooth outer surface of the tooth, removing the decay that may have affected the tooth and returning it to a safe state that promotes good oral hygiene. With the damage filled, you can use the tooth as normal without pain or the risk of further damage.

Metal amalgams, tooth-coloured composite and ceramic or glass fillings all exist. Each has their own unique benefits and downsides, so it’s important to make a careful choice with your dentist.

Why would you need a filling?

Cavities occur in your teeth when a hole develops, either within the tooth or underneath it. Discoloured spots on the teeth can possibly indicate decay, but your dentist will use an explorer to probe for decay more methodically and determine if you need a filling. Healthy enamel should be hard, resisting external pressure, so a soft spot will often indicate problems. Cavity-detecting dye can also be rinsed over your teeth to show areas of concern. In some cases, your dentist may feel the need to use a laser fluorescence cavity detection tool or x-rays to follow up on issues and be sure they are addressing all areas of concern and that no decay is missed.

Regardless of the methodology, if decay is detected in your teeth, the dentist will carefully remove and sterilize all problem enamel that cannot be rescued to return your mouth to a healthy state. This is usually done under anaesthetic. There will be no pain, although the sensation of the drill may be unusual!

However, it would be impossible for you to maintain that healthy new state with a hole in your tooth- and this is where the filling comes in. Once the area is clear, the dentist will clean out the cavity, removing all bacteria and debris that may impede the filling, and then pack the tooth with the filling material. If the cavity was very large and close to the root, a protective lining may be added below the filling for additional protection. Once the filling is applied, the tooth will be polished and the rest of the tooth cleaned.

Tooth-coloured composite fillings can also be used for cracks and breaks in teeth, unusual wear on teeth caused by grinding, biting or using your teeth as bottle openers and other issues where there is an abnormality on the tooth surface that would be best corrected to preserve the integrity of the enamel.

How long will my filling last?

Fillings do wear out, and assuming they don’t is the root cause of many dental problems down the line, so it is critical that you know how long your filling will last. It will depend slightly on what material you opt for for the filling, however most fillings will last for 7-12 years, after which time you should have them replaced [and the underlying tooth checked for issues].

Amalgam fillings will typically last 10-20 years. While they were popular at one stage, negative stereotyping and their obvious nature has made these fillings less common today. They remain a very well-proven way to fill teeth. Tooth coloured composite filling is difficult to distinguish from the real tooth, making them an aesthetically pleasing choice. They do take longer to fit and refine, though, and may stain over time. They don’t last as long, typically up to 10 years. Gold fillings often last a very long time, in excess of 20 years, but can be more expensive and visually unacceptable. There is another type of filling, the glass ionomer filling, used for cavities below the gum line and in children as it release fluoride to strengthen teeth. This will also need replacement after 5 years.

Temporary fillings are used in any case where the dental work will take more than one session, ensuring the damage site stays clean and allowing irritated nerve and pulp to heal before more permanent work [like crowns] is done. Temporary fillings will need to be replaced with the permanent ones as soon as possible.

How do I prevent fillings?

Whilst the filling may be one of the most simple and common dental tasks your dentist performs, they’d still prefer it if they never had to. Fillings only become necessary when a cavity or hole develops in your natural teeth. With a good oral health routine from childhood, it is possible to avoid the need for fillings altogether. However, be aware that a diet packed with sugar undermines the ability of the teeth to heal and regenerate, creating an environment where you will need a filling.

If you visit your dental practitioner regularly, they are in a position to monitor the state of your oral health, and are likely to pick up any changes within your teeth long before you do. This can help you react to potential issues before they become a problem, and help you prevent fillings.

Meanwhile, boost your oral health by minimising harmful habits, eating well, reducing sugar in the diet and adopting a flossing and twice daily brushing regime for your teeth, and you are well on the way to prevent fillings. Use a fluoride toothpaste to maintain the strength of your tooth enamel, rinse food debris out of your mouth after eating, and consider using sugar-free chewing gum to help keep your mouth fresh and protective saliva flowing throughout the day.

Fillings are a common dental procedure, and one may be recommended by your dental practitioner in cases of decay or damage.

This article has been approved by

Dr. Vijay Bhargava BDS MFDS RCS (Eng) MSurgDent (Eng) DipImpDent (UCL)

Dental Surgeon with Interest in Oral Surgery & Implant Dentistry

GDC 82259