What Really Happens If You Never Fix A Cavity?

When we were little, we were told cavities happen when we eat too much candy. Turns out, our parents, teachers, and dentists weren't kidding. "Tooth decay is bacteria that creates acid when we eat carbohydrates or sugar," Boston University dentistry professor Carl McManama says (via Reader's Digest). "The more sugar you eat, the more the bacteria will thrive and create more acid, which eats at the tooth."

The process begins when plaque forms on your teeth. If you don't brush and floss regularly, the plaque turns into acid. "And that acid, over time... it'll wear a hole in your tooth," dentist Kimberly Harms tells WebMD. "Once that hole gets in the tooth, then that bacteria can get inside the little hole, and you can't brush it or floss it away, anymore."

It may be difficult to see how the hole in your tooth can trigger a host of problems (especially if it doesn't hurt), but it can, and it does.

Problems develop if you ignore a cavity

As far as you're concerned, a cavity announces its presence when your tooth starts to hurt a bit — but because of the chemical process involving food acids and bacteria, it may take several months, or even a year, before the pain sets in. And by that time, dentists warn that a cavity could well be on its way to causing real problems. "By the time something hurts, it's gone way too far," dentist Matt Messina says. "By the time it hurts, then the nerve of the tooth is becoming annoyed and involved, so we've taken a simple filling and maybe taken it closer to a root canal."

Like a number of medical conditions, cavities can trigger bigger problems if they are left untreated. A decayed tooth is weakened, which means an everyday act like chewing can lead to a crack in the tooth. If a cavity is left untreated, the decay can also make its way deep into your tooth. "In the middle of every tooth is this skinny little hollow tube where the nerves and blood vessels are," McNamana says. "When the decay reaches into the pulp [or nerve] of the tooth, that's when the patient can have excruciating pain."

Infections can set in if cavities become serious

It doesn't end there. The pain goes away when the nerve dies, but the decay process doesn't stop, and dead tissues could weaken your body's immune systems, leading to problems that include abscesses and infections. "The toxins from the dead tissue starts infecting the bone at the tip of the root, which starts with inflammation," McNamana says. "Then the infection can break through into your cheek and into the floor of your mouth."

Dentists say what sounds like a nightmare scenario that begins with a candy-and-carb habit can easily be avoided by brushing twice a day, flossing once, and visiting your dentist for a check-up and clean every six months (fun fact: dentists tell WebMD that even old filled teeth can develop new cavities). After all, it's a lot easier — and more cost-effective — to brush, floss, and see the dentist on a regular basis, than it is to face the potentially astronomical costs of dental procedures like root canals.