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Dr Mariam Chung Reviewed by Dr Mariam Chung, Dentist

Dentists use fillings to protect a tooth from decay or restore its shape and strength, but there are different types of fillings.

Dental fillings help strengthen and support a tooth's structure when it’s been damaged through decay or injury. A weakened or damaged tooth has the potential to make everyday tasks more difficult. 
A filling can repair the tooth and improve its ability to help you chew, speak and smile.

When is a filling necessary?

Dentists and sometimes oral health therapists use fillings to repair and strengthen a tooth after damage has already occurred, or to prevent damage from happening. 

A filling seals the cavity created by decay, This prevents decay from returning and aims to restore strength, shape and appearance.

Because decay can happen when bacteria make their way into the tooth, fillings may also be a preventive measure. Small cavities, cracks or chips in the tooth may not be serious enough to warrant more extensive treatment but might benefit from a little extra protection. A filling may prevent food particles or bacteria from making the problem worse.

Your dentist identifies decay or damage through a visual examination, and will likely follow up with an x-ray to check the extent and exact location of the damage. X-rays are also used to detect decay on tooth surfaces that are not always visible – e.g. in between your teeth. 

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What types of dental fillings are there?

Filling type usually comes down to the material. Each variation of filling has different advantages, and which one your dentist recommends will depend on the problem they’re trying to fix and the tooth’s function in your mouth.

Composite resin (“white/tooth-coloured fillings”)

Composite resin is popular partially because of its appearance ⁠— its colour looks a lot like a tooth, which is why these fillings are sometimes called “white fillings.” Dentists place these fillings to the tooth surface and can match the colour closely to your natural tooth. As a soft and flexible material, it also helps dentist shape the filling to the cavity and tooth. Because the procedure can be a bit more complex than using other materials, composite resin fillings can cost more than other fillings. 

Amalgam

Amalgam is another popular option because of its durability. When applied, the mixture is soft and hardens once in place.

But because amalgam is much darker than natural teeth, it can create a filling that’s more noticeable than those made from tooth-coloured materials. Because of its darker appearance, some people may prefer to use it only for fillings in back molars or other teeth that aren’t as visible.

Amalgam fillings also tend to mean your dentist will need to remove more of your natural tooth. They have received some negative attention due to the small amount of mercury used in the metal alloy, and some people even ask dentists to remove and replace their old amalgam fillings. This is usually only done if the dentist perceives it to be clinically required.

Glass-ionomer cement

Preferred for baby teeth or teeth that don’t do quite as much chewing, glass-ionomer cement protects teeth from decay but can’t withstand as much pressure as other materials. It bonds well to tooth and is tooth-coloured.

Temporary fillings

Dentists may use short-term fillings to protect a tooth during a treatment plan that requires multiple appointments. They’ll remove this filling once your treatment plan or a specific procedure is finished.

What to expect when getting a filling

Before starting the filling procedure, your dentist will usually numb the area around the tooth to minimise any discomfort. Next, they will remove any decay with a drill or a laser— during this process, they will  aim to remove as little of your natural tooth as possible. 

They will clean and dry the cavity before inserting the filling material. If you’re getting a composite resin filling, the dentist will use a blue light to set the filling material to allow it to harden in the shape of your tooth. 

To ensure that your filling feels as close to your natural tooth as possible, the dentist will use a special paper to ensure your teeth are biting in the same position prior to the filling.

Most of the time, a dentist will  recommend that you don’t eat or drink until the numbing agent has worn off, which may take 2-3 hours. After your initial treatment, you may have sensitivity to certain foods or temperatures for several days. If this doesn’t go away, contact your dentist to them know.

How long do tooth fillings last?

Durability depends on the filling material as well as your oral health, chewing habits and lifestyle, but most fillings don’t last forever. Most fillings should last up to 5-10 years. 

Over time, it is possible that the filling will begin to wear or chip, leaving a gap between the filling and the tooth. This can lead to decay if bacteria and food particles are able to enter any gaps, holes or crevices. 

Regular check-ups can help dentists keep an eye on your filling. If they notice signs of wear or tear, they might recommend repairing or replacing it. 

Questions about dental fillings?

If you have questions about your existing fillings or think you might need one, find a dentist near you.

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The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.

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