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What happens when you get a dental filling?

If your dentist suggests you need a dental filling it is because they have detected decay in your tooth which has progressed to a stage that is irreversible. Regular appointments are recommended so that dental decay can be prevented, or can be detected in the early stages, when minimal treatment is required.

Dental decay is caused by bacteria that have not been removed because of inadequate oral hygiene and the bacteria are fed by sugars in the diet. Having a dental filling does not prevent further decay; this is only achieved by restricting dietary sugars and adopting good oral hygiene practices.

The process of having a dental filling placed starts with your dentist ensuring that you are comfortable and do not feel any pain. This is achieved by using a local anaesthetic, with a topical anaesthetic (numbing gel) often applied beforehand.

Once the tooth and surrounding area are numb, your dentist uses a small dental drill to remove the decayed portion of the tooth so that only the healthy tooth structure is left behind. Often water is required during the drilling process, and your dental nurse will use suction to remove any excess water from your mouth.

With the decayed part of the tooth removed, the dentist will restore your tooth with a dental filling. Sometimes a rubber dam (a plastic sheet that surrounds your tooth) or cotton rolls are used to keep the tooth dry throughout this part of the procedure. This is because some filling materials will adhere to the tooth structure only if the area is isolated and dry.

A range of different materials are used in dental fillings, including amalgam (silver, or mercury) fillings, composite resin fillings (tooth-coloured fillings made from silica and a plastic resin) and porcelain fillings. Depending on the tooth that has decayed, your dentist may suggest a particular material and will explain why that material is recommended.

Composite resin fillings are the most commonly placed nowadays, in preference to the traditional amalgam fillings which have been found to pose health and environmental risks.

Porcelain fillings are often used when aesthetics are important or when extra strength is required. Once the filling material is placed, your dentist will check your bite with the new filling, make any adjustments and polish the filling so that it feels smooth.

The whole procedure usually lasts less than one hour and the local anaesthetic will usually wear off within approximately two hours.

Dental fillings do need maintenance and over time may require repair or replacement. For this reason, we recommend that you have regular dental checkups to assess the condition of any fillings.

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