A cavity in a tooth might seem like the most common dental problem that exists. Because it's such an everyday problem, it's easy to think of a cavity as being benign, relatively harmless and little more than an inconvenience—and in most cases it is. Unless you don't seek treatment for it, of course.

Early Stages

Ideally, a cavity will be noted in its early developmental stages. Cavities begin on the surface of a tooth, so your dental enamel is the first to be affected. Weak, thinning enamel can be reinforced with fluoride treatment, using a process called remineralisation. Once the enamel has been breached, a filling will be needed, but the problem is still superficial and limited to the tooth's surface. The trouble is that cavities tend to deepen.

Into the Pulp

Beneath your dental enamel is dentin, which forms the bulk of the tooth. The dentin contains a pulp chamber at its centre, and this is where the tooth's pulp (nerve) is found. A cavity that has reached the pulp chamber can lead to an infection and inflammation of the pulp, which is a condition known as pulpitis. It's at this stage that a simple cavity may become a dental emergency.

Severe Pain

Pulpitis can lead to severe pain, which will worsen without treatment. Your pain is triggered by various stimuli, but since these stimuli include bite pressure and thermal sensitivity to food and drink, these triggers are unavoidable. As your pulpitis worsens (and it's likely that the infection is spreading to surrounding tissues), then undertaking basic, everyday activities can become difficult due to the intensity of the pain. Sleep may prove to be impossible. If this happens, you must see an emergency dentist immediately.

Emergency Pulpitis Management

Should an abscess have developed at the base of the tooth, this will be drained. You're likely to need a course of antibiotics, and even prescription pain relief. An X-ray will determine whether your pulpitis is reversible. In this case, antibiotics, along with a restoration of the tooth (filling the cavity), may be all that is needed. With irreversible pulpitis, the dental pulp has passed the point of no return, and its recovery is impossible. This means a root canal may be your only option.

See your dentist when you first note the early signs of a cavity. Should it remain untreated and cause a rapid escalation in pain, the situation should be regarded as a dental emergency, and you should see an emergency dentist without delay. Contact an emergency dentist to learn more.