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Difference Between Cavity Filling and Root Canal & Its Treatments

Close up of a mouth in a dental clinic

The complexity of our dental anatomy is quite challenging to understand, especially when we experience dental problems such as minor decay or extreme sensitivity. Two common treatments, cavity filling, and root canal, help a dentist prevent further damage to the patient’s teeth.

To seek treatment, you must understand your options and how they can benefit you in the long run.

In this article, root canal therapy and cavity dental filling will be discussed thoroughly to help you make a decision that will help you lessen your tooth decay and other dental problems.

What is Cavity?

Before discussing fillings and root canals, it’s important to understand what a cavity is. A cavity, also known as tooth decay, is caused by plaque buildup on your teeth.

This sticky substance is home to bacteria that feed on sugars from your diet and produce acids. This acid can eat away at your tooth’s enamel, leading to cavities. The common signs of tooth decay include tooth pain, tooth sensitivity, mild to severe pain when eating or drinking sweet, hot, or cold, visible holes or pits in the damaged tooth, and brown, black, or white staining on any tooth surface.

Patient getting her teeth fixed

What Causes a Cavity?

Understanding the reasons behind cavities helps prevent further tooth damage. These are:

  • Bacteria in your mouth
  • Frequently snacking on sugary foods or sipping sugary drinks
  • Not cleaning your teeth well

What is Cavity Filling?

A cavity dental filling is a permanent or temporary procedure that can save your tooth. It helps fix and strengthen a damaged tooth caused by decay. Commonly composed of amalgam (we are not using amalgam anymore) or composite resin, these fillings can be customised to blend in or stand out, contouring to the aesthetics of your mouth.

How is a Cavity Filling Done?

Here is a step-by-step guide to filling:

  1. Numbing the area with local anaesthetic
  2. Drilling out the decay
  3. Cleaning out the cavity
  4. Filling it to prevent further decay
  5. Polishing it to match the texture of your natural teeth

Types of Cavity Fillings

These are the two most common materials used:

  • Amalgam Fillings: They are sturdy, affordable, and recommended for molars and premolars that often bear the brunt of chewing.
  • Composite resin fillings: match the colour of your tooth, providing a better cosmetic appearance, but are slightly less durable than amalgam.

Maintaining your filling is key. Practice good oral hygiene, be mindful of your chewing, and have a regular dental check-up to extend the life of your filling.

What is Root Canal?

A thorough dental exam is needed when a cavity has moved its way deep into the core of your tooth. A root canal treatment can save damaged teeth from experiencing pain that over-the-counter medications cannot cure.

By treating the infected pulp, a root canal procedure makes way for preserving your natural tooth, which can impact your oral health and overall well-being.

Dentist having a patients teeth cleaned

Understanding Root Canal (Endodontic) Therapy

A root canal is a multiphase treatment that aims to treat the diseased pulp inside your tooth. The steps involve:

  1. Removing the damaged tissue
  2. Cleaning and shaping the canals
  3. Filling and sealing the space
  4. Restoring it to look like a natural tooth

The root canal treatment is for relieving pain, not causing it. By removing the damaged area, you are eliminating the source of the infection and making way for your tooth to heal.

Key Differences Between Cavity Filling and Root Canal

Dentist examining patient

While both procedures aim to treat issues inside the tooth, there are significant differences. Let’s break those down:


Cavity fillings repair minor to moderate tooth decay, while root canals address severe decay that reaches the inner tooth pulp.

Severity of decay

Cavity filling treats only the outer layer of the tooth (enamel and dentin). The root canal treats the inner damaged pulp, which contains nerves and blood vessels.


Cavity fillings treat mild-to-moderate toothache sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures. Root canals treat severe throbbing pain, swollen gums, pus drainage, and tooth discolouration.


Cavity fillings clean out the decayed area and fill the cavity with amalgam or composite resin. Root canals open the tooth, remove the infected pulp, clean and disinfect the canals, and seal the tooth.

Number of appointments

Cavity filling treatment usually has one appointment, while root canals usually have multiple appointments.


Cavity fillings use local anaesthetics. Root canals use local anaesthesia, sometimes sedation.

Recovery time

Dental fillings have a short recovery time, while root canals take longer and may require pain medication.

Cost Difference

Dental fillings are cheaper than root canal treatment.


Dental fillings can last several years or decades, while root canals can last a lifetime with proper care.

Feature Cavity Filling Root Canal
Purpose Repair minor to moderate tooth decay Address severe decay that reaches the inner pulp
Severity of decay Affects only the outer layer of the tooth (enamel and dentin) Affects the inner pulp, which contains nerves and blood vessels
Symptoms Mild to moderate toothache, sensitivity to hot or cold Severe throbbing pain, swelling, pus drainage, discoloration of the tooth
Procedure Clean out the decayed area, fill the cavity with a material like composite resin Make an opening in the tooth, remove the infected pulp, clean and disinfect the canals, fill the canals and seal the tooth
Number of appointments Usually one appointment Usually multiple appointments
Anesthesia Local Anesthesia Local Anesthesia, sometimes sedation
Recovery time Short, may experience some sensitivity for a few days Longer, may require pain medication
Cost Less Expensive More Expensive
Durability Can last for several years to decades Can last for lifetime with proper care

Which Procedure Do You Need?

The dentist determines whether to get a filling or a root canal. Key things to consider include the severity of the decay, whether there is an infection present, and the tooth’s location.

If the decay is caught early and has not spread to the tooth’s pulp, a simple filling should be enough. However, if the infection is severe and affects the soft tissue and roots, you may need a root canal, which may be the only option to save the tooth.

Always consult a dentist, who will diagnose your issue and provide a treatment plan based on your circumstances.

Aftercare and Recovery After Treatment

After a cavity filling, most people return to their normal routines immediately. Some minor discomfort or sensitivity may be treated with over-the-counter pain medications.

After a root canal, expect some tenderness for a few days; however, it can usually be managed with over-the-counter pain medications. Practising good oral hygiene, including regular brushing and flossing, is important to prevent future dental issues.


You have two options for tooth filling: get a permanent or temporary filling, as your dentist would suggest, to repair the damage caused by a cavity and stop the decay process.

A root canal is also a permanent dental procedure, as the infected tooth is cleared out and sealed, preventing future infection. However, the treated tooth is not immune to decay or gum disease. Proper oral hygiene and regular check-ups are essential to keep your mouth free from diseases or pain.

It’s important to understand the difference between a cavity filling and a root canal, as it is more than a matter of dental semantics. It’s about taking care of your oral health. While these treatments may seem scary, they are essential to maintaining healthy, natural teeth for as long as possible.

Don’t wait until your toothache becomes a root canal; book an appointment with your dentist. Your smile is worth it.

FAQs related to Cavity Filling and Root Canal

Does insurance cover cavity fillings and root canals?

Most dental insurance partially pays for the cost of fillings and root canals. Coverage may differ based on the type of treatment and the materials used. Be sure to check with your insurance provider or dentist to get a clear picture of what your plan covers.

What are the risks associated with each procedure?

With any dental procedure, there are risks, but complications from fillings and root canals are rare. Potential issues can include infection, continued sensitivity, allergic reactions to filling materials, and rare complications related to the anaesthetic.

What are the alternative treatments for cavity fillings and root canals?

The alternative for a cavity would be to leave it untreated, which can lead to increased tooth decay and the potential for a root canal. For a root canal, the only alternative is to extract the tooth, leading to shifting teeth, difficulty eating, and a change in smile appearance.

How can I prevent future cavities and tooth problems?

Brushing at least twice a day and flossing regularly are ways to maintain good oral hygiene. Use fluoride toothpaste and consider a mouthwash with fluoride to prevent cavities. Schedule regular dental check-ups to know if any dental issues arise.

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