What is a dental filling?

A dental filling, or tooth filling, is an outpatient procedure that treats tooth decay. Your dentist will numb your mouth and use a drill to take out the damaged part of your tooth. Then he or she fills the hollowed-out area of your tooth with a filling material. 

A dental filling is generally very safe, but it does have risks and potential complications. It is only one method used to treat tooth decay. Discuss all of your options with your dentist to understand which options are right for you.  

Types of dental fillings

The two most common permanent filling materials are:

  • Amalgam fillings, also called silver fillings, are a mixture of mercury and other metals. Dentists may use this type of filling in back teeth, or molars, because of its strength and durability. Amalgam can be placed in the front teeth, but it generally is not used in the front teeth due to a less esthetic look.
  • Composite fillings, also called tooth-colored fillings, can consist of a few different types of materials that include powdered glass-like particles and acrylics. Dentists can use composite fillings on any tooth. However, they may not always be used depending on the location of the filling. Composite fillings are more cosmetically pleasing than amalgam fillings because they match the tooth’s color.

Why is a dental filling performed? 

Your dentist may recommend a dental filling is to treat tooth decay. Tooth decay, also called a cavity or dental caries,wh is essentially a hole in your tooth. X-rays are often needed to diagnose tooth decay. 

Tooth decay occurs when bacteria build up on your teeth, producing acid that damages your teeth. The acid eats away your tooth causing tooth decay.  

Your dentist may be able to repair or reverse some early types of decay without using a dental filling. However, your dentist may recommend a dental filling if he or she sees more advanced signs of decay or damage to your tooth. Once a cavity has formed, your dentist will likely need to clean out the decayed area and replace it with a filling.

Your dentist may also recommend a filling if your tooth is cracked or if it has become worn down by chewing or grinding. A filling in these situations may help strengthen the tooth and prevent it from cracking or wearing any further.

Who performs a dental filling?

A general dentist or pediatric dentist performs dental filling procedures. General dentists prevent, diagnose and treat diseases and conditions of the teeth, gums, mouth, and associated structures of the jaw and face. Pediatric dentists specialize in caring for the dental needs of children and teens.

How is a dental filling performed?

Your dental filling procedure will be performed in a dental office or clinic. The procedure generally includes these steps:

  1. You will sit in a reclining position in the dentist chair. You may wear a clear shield over your eyes to protect your eyes from spraying liquids and dental instruments.
  2. Your dentist will inject a local anesthetic into the gums near your tooth. The anesthetic prevents you from feeling pain during the procedure. A shallow cavity may not require anesthesia.
  3. Your dentist will use a drill, often in combination with other instruments, to remove the damaged part of your tooth.
  4. Your dentist will fill the hollowed-out area of your tooth with a filling material. Your dentist will hold a small blue light over your tooth to help a composite filling harden.
  5. Your dentist will polish and smooth the filling so that it will not scrape your mouth or tongue. Your dentist will also check the patient's bite to ensure the teeth still bite and come together properly.

Will I feel pain?

Your comfort and relaxation is important to you and your care team. You may experience sharp pinches when your dentist injects your gums with local anesthetic. You may also feel pressure as your dentist drills your tooth to remove the decay. Take a few long, deep breaths to help yourself relax. Tell your dentist if any discomfort does not pass quickly.