If you were just diagnosed with a cavity for the first time, you’re hardly alone. The CDC estimates that over 90% of American adults experience tooth decay, with 80% of people having one by the time they’re 34 years old1. Your dentist may recommend an amalgam or composite filling to restore the function and appearance of the tooth, which may cause some anxiety — and that’s perfectly normal!
Fortunately, fillings aren’t anything to be afraid of. The procedure is quick (taking an hour or less in most cases2) and causes minimal, if any, discomfort. Still, it can ease your mind to know what’s going to happen before you go in for the procedure. This guide will help answer some of your questions!
What happens during a tooth filling?
Before the procedure starts, the dentist may take X-rays of your mouth to confirm the cavity location and severity. They will then numb the area around the affected tooth with local anesthetic to ensure a comfortable and pain-free process. After the anesthetic kicks in, they’ll remove the decayed portion of the tooth with a drill or laser and sterilize the area to prepare it for the filling2. The dentist may insert a liner or resin if the cavity is close to the root; this protects the nerve and alleviates tooth sensitivity3.
From here, the process will depend on the material you choose4.
For an amalgam filling, the dentist first needs to mix the appropriate metals. When the mixture is complete, they’ll begin filling the tooth with the amalgam and shaping it to your tooth. If the cavity is between two teeth, they’ll insert a band to help them rebuild the side of the affected tooth. Amalgam fillings set in about one hour and reach full strength in 24 hours2.
If you get a composite filling, the dentist will place a rubber dam or a similar material around the tooth. This helps the resin bond to your teeth by keeping it dry; moisture can keep the it from adhering properly. The dentist will fill the opening with layers of composite resin that match your natural tooth color. To cure, or harden, the material, they’ll shine a blue light on the tooth. Each layer of composite takes only about 20 seconds to cure2.
Learn more about amalgam and composite tooth fillings!
After your filling is in place, the dentist will ask you to bite down to confirm it fits and make adjustments if necessary.
Will you feel any pain during a tooth filling?
You may experience some stinging during the injection of the local anesthetic into your gums. However, the dentist can minimize any pain by applying a numbing gel to your gums beforehand. During the procedure, you shouldn’t feel anything because your mouth will be numb5. Make sure you tell your dentist if you do feel any discomfort.
When the anesthetic wears off after the procedure, you may feel some soreness in the tooth or gums (around the injection site). Sensitivity from hot or cold foods, chewing, or sugary and acidic snacks may also occur. This is completely normal. But if it lasts longer than a week or is particularly painful or uncomfortable, contact your dentist6.
What are the best aftercare practices for a tooth filling?
Your dentist may recommend waiting to eat or drink anything for one to three hours after your procedure. This gives the anesthetic time to wear off and prevents you from accidentally biting or burning your tongue, lip, or cheek. Aftercare also depends on the filling material you receive. Your dentist will give you specific instructions.
Generally, because amalgam takes about 24 hours to set, you’ll want to stay away from hard foods and avoid chewing with the tooth. This can damage the filling before it has time to fully set. Composite, however, sets right away, which means you may be able to eat and chew normally as long as it’s comfortable. If your bite feels uneven, call your dentist; they may need to readjust the filling. Brush and floss the tooth like normal to maintain its appearance and maximize its lifespan7.
Read more: What's a root canal procedure?