Dental Fillings

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Was this helpful?

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.

What are the risks and potential complications of a dental filling?  

Complications of a dental filling are uncommon, but any dental procedure involves risks and the potential complications that may become serious in some cases. Complications can develop during the procedure or your recovery. 

Risks and potential complications of a dental filling include:

  • Anesthetic complications, such as allergic reaction and nerve or blood vessel injury

  • Development of a cavity around the filling

  • Expansion and shrinkage of the filling, which can damage the filling and the tooth

  • Injury to the mouth

  • Need for more extensive procedures, especially if a cavity is large. This can happen if a lot of tooth structure is removed or the nerve is exposed. A crown may be needed if too much tooth structure is removed. A root canal or extraction may be needed if the decay goes all the way to the nerve.

  • Possible damage to other teeth during the filling procedure

  • Sensitivity to heat and cold in the affected tooth

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by:

  • Following activity, dietary and lifestyle restrictions and recommendations before your filling procedure and during recovery. This includes oral health prevention practices, such as proper oral hygiene.

  • Informing your dentist if you are nursing or if there is any possibility of pregnancy

  • Notifying your dentist immediately of any concerns after the procedure such as pain, fever, and difficulty chewing

  • Telling all members of your care team if you have any allergies, especially metal allergies if your dentist is using metal filling material

  • Taking your medications exactly as directed

How do I prepare for my dental filling? 

You are an important member of your own dental care team. The steps you take before your procedure can improve your comfort and outcome. 

You can prepare for a dental filling by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.

  • Taking or stopping medications exactly as directed

  • Telling your dentist if there is any possibility of pregnancy

Questions to ask your dentist

Having a dental filling procedure can be stressful. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a dentist’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your dentist with concerns and questions before your procedure and between appointments.

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions can include:

  • How long will the procedure take? When will I go home?

  • What are my options for types of filling materials?

  • What restrictions will I have after the procedure? When can I eat and drink after the dental filling procedure?

  • How do I take my medications?

  • How will you treat my pain?

  • When should I follow up with you?

  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after my dental filling?

Knowing what to expect after a dental filling can help you get back to your everyday life as soon as possible.

How will I feel after the dental filling?

Your mouth, gums and tongue may feel numb for a few hours after your dental filling. This is because the local anesthetic will take time to wear off. You may have difficulty talking, chewing and drinking until the anesthetic wears off. You may also experience a tingly feeling in the area as feeling returns.

You may also feel tooth tenderness and your tooth may be more sensitive than usual to cold and heat for a few days to a week after your procedure. Tell your dentist if symptoms worsen or continue longer than a week because they can be a sign of a complication, such as nerve irritation.

When can I go home?

You will probably go home and resume your normal activities immediately after a dental filling. Your dentist may tell you not to eat or drink until your anesthetic wears off and you can feel your mouth and tongue again. This will help prevent you from accidentally biting and injuring your mouth or tongue. 

When should I call my dentist?

It’s important to keep your follow-up appointments after a dental filling. Call your dentist if you have any concerns between appointments. Call your dentist right away or seek immediate medical care if you have:

How might a dental filling affect my everyday life?

A dental filling will help protect your tooth from further decay and infection. Fillings experience wear and tear and may eventually need to be replaced. However, most fillings have a long life and replacement may not be necessary for several years. Visit your dentist for regular cleanings and checkups every six months to ensure that your filling is intact and working well.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 16
View All Oral Health Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. About Dental Amalgam Fillings. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  2. Alternatives to Dental Amalgam. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  3. Cavities. Mouth Healthy by the American Dental Association.
  4. Composite Fillings. Mouth Healthy by the American Dental Association.
  5. Dental Fillings Facts. American Dental Association.
  6. Fillings, Silver-Colored. Mouth Healthy by the American Dental Association.
  7. Fillings: the basics. Colgate Oral and Dental Health Resource Center.