Our latest blog in the Treatment Focus series looks at fillings: what they are, what they’re made of, when are they needed, and how long do they last?
What is a filling?
A filling is typically used to repair a hole in a tooth caused by decay. It helps prevent food and bacteria getting into the hole and causing more damage, and restores the tooth to its normal shape so that it can function as normal.
When a dentist does a filling, they remove the decayed part of the tooth, clean the area and then fill the cavity with one of a number of materials. The type of material depends on the extent of the repair, where the filling is, whether the patient has any allergies and how much they want to spend. So what are the options?
What are fillings made from?
Filling materials include gold, porcelain, composite resin, or amalgam.
Gold is one of the most hard-wearing and long-lasting filling materials, lasting for 20 years or more, and is well tolerated by teeth and gum tissues. However, it is one of the most expensive materials to use, and may not be desirable where a natural appearance is desired. Gold fillings also have to be made by a laboratory so need more than one visit the dentist in order to get them sized and fitted correctly.
Porcelain fillings are called inlays or onlays. They are produced in a lab and then bonded to the tooth by the dentist. They generally cover most of the tooth but can be colour-matched. They are also hardwearing and resist staining.
Composite resin is composed of powdered glass and acrylic resin mixed together. This mixture is then placed directly onto the cavity, where they harden to form the filling. One advantage is that they can be mixed to match the colour of the surrounding teeth, making it very desirable especially if the hole is in a visible place. However, this material does chip and wear over time, so it doesn’t last as long as other materials, and isn’t suitable for larger cavities.
Amalgam is an alloy of metals and is probably the filling material that most people are most familiar with – these are the silver fillings which are dark in colour. Although they are more noticeable than porcelain or composite fillings they are very durable and one of the least expensive filling materials used.
When is a filling needed?
Fillings are needed if the tooth has been damaged either by decay or by trauma. For example, poor oral hygiene can lead to the build up of bacteria which then damages the tooth. Alternatively trauma such as an accident or sports injury can chip or crack teeth.
Usually only your dentist will be able to tell if you need a filling as typically there is no pain associated with a small hole in a tooth. So if you have toothache it is usually more serious! This is why it is important to regularly visit your dentist for checkups so that any potential small issues do not evolve into big ones.
During a check up, the dentist will examine the surface of the teeth with a small mirror. Anything that they suspect might not be normal they will then inspect with special instruments, to determine exactly what the problem is and what treatment to advise. Depending on the extent of the damage, upon detection of a hole, usually the dentist can fill it during the same appointment. Otherwise they will book a separate appointment for you to come back and have the tooth filled soon after, to minimise the amount of further damage done in the meantime.
How long do fillings last?
This depends on the material, where it is located and how well it is cared for. However generally you should expect them to last a number of years at least. For example, gold can last for 20 years or more. On the other hand, composite fillings are made of plastic and therefore chip and wear over time, so will degrade more quickly but can last for anything between 3 and ten years. The benefit of a composite filling, however, is that is can be matched to the same colour as your teeth and is therefore very desirable in instances where the filling can be seen easily.
Although there are several options for fillings should you need one, no one type is more beneficial than another – it all depends on a number of factors. Should you find that you need a filling at your next dental appointment, ask which material would be best suited to you and your teeth, and the advantages and disadvantages for different materials, so that you are well informed when making a decision about treatment.
For more information or to book your next dental appointment, please get in touch.