So, your dentist tells you that you have a cavity and need a filling. What exactly does that mean and what is a filling? When your tooth has decay present, that decay needs to be removed by the dentist. Once the decay is gone, the dentist will need to place a filling where the decay used to be. A filling is the most conservative way of restoring a tooth.
While the two most common types of fillings are the silver amalgam and tooth-colored composite, there are other options out there for you also. Here's the scoop on the different types of fillings that are available along with their advantages and disadvantages.
- Silver amalgam is probably the most widely known filling material. Amalgam is made up of a mixture of silver, tin, zinc, copper, and mercury, with mercury being nearly 50% of the mixture. The popularity of amalgam among dentists is due in part to its low cost as well as its strength and durability. And even though they are not aesthetically pleasing, these fillings can typically last 15 years or longer. These fillings are also fairly easy to place in the tooth and there is no concern about contamination from saliva or blood. The disadvantages of this material, is that it is prone to expansion and contraction and more likely to cause your tooth to crack. This fluctuation also creates open spaces between the filling and the tooth that allows food and bacteria to become trapped, enabling cavities to form. There is also the controversial mercury that is present in these fillings.
- Composite fillings are very popular because of the tooth-colored appearance that can be matched to the shade of your existing teeth. Your dentist, using a bright blue light (known as the curing light), which hardens the soft material, places composite fillings. Although they are not as durable or long lasting as its amalgam counterpart, composite fillings are becoming the most commonly used material in dental fillings. Composite fillings are made of a resin/plastic material which makes them more expensive than the silver amalgam fillings and they typically need to be replaced every 5 years or so.
- Ceramic fillings are made of porcelain and are both durable as well as aesthetically pleasing. The material is more expensive than the other filling materials, but ceramics are tooth-colored and more resistant to staining and abrasion than composite resin. The disadvantages of using ceramic is that it is more brittle than its composite counter-part and it needs to be large enough to prevent it from breaking, so the tooth must be reduced in size to make room for the extra bulk. These ceramic restorations are typically referred to as inlays or onlays.
- Glass ionomers are made of glass and acrylic and typically lasts less than 5 years. They are a good choice for children whose teeth are still changing. Glass ionomers release fluoride, which can help protect the tooth from further decay. The disadvantages of glass ionomer fillings are they are significantly weaker than composite resin and much more likely to wear or fracture. Traditional glass ionomer does not match your tooth color as precisely as composite resin.
- Gold fillings are not as commonly used and are an expensive alternative but the gold material is sturdy and non-corrosive. Although having the gold filling placed is not convenient (it takes more than 1 office visit to fit them properly), it can last for over 15 years. It may be difficult to find a dentist who offers gold foil as an option because it is being replaced by other materials that match the color of your teeth.