Can You Reverse a Cavity? (5 Simple Steps)

Category: Common Questions, Dr. Advocate's Insights, Oral Health

Dr Advocate Avatar IconBy: Dr. Advocate
Updated: August 25, 2022

Teeth with Cavities | Can You Reverse a Cavity? (5 Simple Steps) | My Dental Advocate

Did you know you can heal cavities without dental treatment? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 90% of adults have had a cavity, and 1 in 4 adults currently have a cavity. Cavities can be a real pain, and nobody enjoys paying money to have their teeth drilled on. Healing a cavity can save you money, time, and unnecessary pain, but you may need your dentist’s help.

Recommended Reading: Cavities | The Ultimate Guide

Can you reverse a cavity?

Cavities that are located in the enamel can be reversed. This process is called remineralization and can only be accomplished when the cavity is superficial. If the cavity progresses to the dentin layer, the cavity cannot be repaired because there’s an irreversible hole in the tooth. There are five simple steps to heal a cavity.

Related: Learn more about Cavities


How do cavities form?

Cavities, also called tooth decay or caries, are holes in teeth that require enamel repair or dental treatment. Tooth decay occurs when bacteria in your mouth consume sugars from the food you eat to produce acid and damage the tooth surface. Many factors contribute to tooth decay, summarized in the image below.


Tooth Decay Diagram | Can You Reverse a Cavity (5 Simple Steps) | My Dental Advocate


Tooth decay risk factors

Everyone with teeth is at risk for tooth decay; however, some individuals have an increased cavity risk because of many factors. Cavities are one of the greatest unmet health treatment needs and, if left untreated, can lead to problems eating, speaking, playing, and learning.


  1. Tooth location: Back teeth are more difficult to clean and harbor more bacteria. Also, molars and premolars feature grooves and pits where tooth decay begins.

  2. Poor oral hygiene: Inadequate brushing and flossing lead to more plaque and bacteria in your mouth. Dental plaque is the first stage of tooth decay and should be removed as soon as possible.

  3. Dry mouth: Dry mouth is an ideal environment for cavity-causing bacteria. Dry mouth can occur from certain medications or low salivary flow. Saliva washes away food particles from your teeth to prevent plaque formation.

  4. Poor nutrition: Diets high in sugar bathe the teeth providing food for cavity-causing bacteria. If sugar is consumed more frequently, it leads to an increased risk for tooth decay. Also, lack of water consumption prevents the removal and clearing of food particles.

  5. Poor-fitting restorations: Crowns and fillings with gaps provide a safe space for bacteria to congregate. These spaces are hard-to-reach and prevent removal leading to an increased risk of decay.

  6. Infrequent dental visits: Frequent dental visits and cleanings allow the clinician to spot early signs of tooth decay. Also, regular cleanings help remove stubborn plaque and calculus that harbor bacteria.

  7. Genetics/medical issues: Some individuals are predisposed (more likely) to cavities because their enamel is weakened, or they are more prone to harbor cavity-causing bacteria. Also, specific medical issues decrease the immune response and prevent the body from fighting off harmful bacteria.

Recommended Reading: 12 Cavity Risk Factors (Best Treatment)


Common signs & symptoms

The size and severity of the cavity correlate to how deep it penetrates the tooth. The tooth is made of three layers enamel, dentin, and pulp, and the deeper the hole, the more painful it becomes. Cavities progress at varying stages depending on the location and other risk factors. Occasionally cavities are present, and the patient is unaware due to the absence of pain.


  • Spontaneous pain (Toothache)
  • Pain from stimulation (sweet, hot, or cold)
  • Pain when biting down
  • Visible holes in teeth
  • Black, brown, or white stains on teeth

When to visit the dentist

Regular dental visits and cleanings are essential to prevent tooth decay. Most cavities form in hard-to-reach areas without pain or irritation. The dentist is trained to recognize early signs and symptoms to repair weakened enamel. If pain is present, visit your dentist for evaluation and treatment.

Recommended Reading: 10 Simple Steps to Prevent Cavities (Dentist’s Perspective)


Cavity management

Dentists will formulate a treatment plan based on your medical history, x-rays, and exam. Smooth surface cavities in the enamel layer are the simplest to repair with topical fluoride application. The fluoride adheres with the weakened enamel to form a new solid bond. Cavities that advance past the enamel require more advanced dental treatment.


Common dental treatments:

5 simple steps to heal a cavity

These five steps provide the most significant opportunity to reverse a cavity and are listed from most important to least important. Cavities only localized in the first tooth layer (enamel) can be healed/remineralized. Tooth decay that advances into the second tooth layer (Dentin) or further requires dental treatment because there’s an irreversible hole in the tooth that needs repair.


Step 1: Nightly fluoride trays (dentist required)

Nightly fluoride trays are fabricated at the dentist and require an upper and lower impression of your teeth. Your dentist will also prescribe 1.1% sodium fluoride anti-cavity gel to apply inside the trays. When you wear them each night, fluoride will be in direct contact with your teeth to remineralize cavities.


Step 2: Prescription fluoride toothpaste (dentist required)

Your dentist can also prescribe 1.1% sodium fluoride anti-cavity toothpaste that you should use nightly. Use a pea-sized amount, and after thoroughly brushing, spit it out and don’t rinse. Rinsing your mouth will inadvertently remove the fluoride minerals and prevent tooth remineralization.


Step 3: Topical fluoride varnish (dentist required)

5% fluoride varnish is only available at your dentist and can be directly applied to localized areas of decay. The sticky varnish is gently painted on your teeth and requires no eating or drinking for at least 30 minutes. The direct application provides a protective barrier for fluoride to take effect.


Step 4: Over-the-counter toothpaste

The most effective remineralizing toothpaste contains sodium fluoride, stannous fluoride, or calcium phosphate (hydroxyapatite). These ingredients bond to weakened enamel, repairing missing tooth structure and preventing future tooth decay. Look for one with the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance.

Recommended Reading: What is the ADA Seal of Acceptance?


Step 5: Oral health improvement

Oral health improvement consists of regular dental visits, frequent brushing, and nightly flossing. Antibacterial mouthwash also helps remove food particles while killing cavity-causing bacteria. However, improving oral health may require mastering new dental.

Recommended Reading: Top 10 Habits for Improved Oral Health


Final thoughts

Cavities that are located in the enamel can be reversed and healed. The advances in fluoride use and treatment have been impactful. Fluoridation of drinking water and other fluoride cavity-prevention treatments is a top 10 public health achievements in the 20th century. Visit your dentist regularly to screen for tooth decay and prevent future dental problems.


The more you know, the more healthy habits you can develop, saving you and your family from avoidable and potentially expensive dental procedures. Talk to your dental professional for more suggestions on improving oral health and check back for more blog posts and relevant information. Please share this site and let us know what else you’d like to know!



Sources

  1. “Cavities”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  2. “Cavities/Tooth Decay”. Mayo Clinic
  3. American Dental Association (ADA)

Dr Advocate Avatar IconAbout the Author

Dr. Advocate is an actual board-certified dentist with clinical practice experience and a mission to provide accurate dental patient education. He believes everyone should access easy-to-read dental resources presented in layman’s terms with relevant, up-to-date dental research and insight to improve their oral health.