Cavities in Toddlers: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment Options

Clinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
Last Modified:

Table of Contents

  1. Causes
  2. Symptoms
  3. When to Se a Dentist
  4. Is Treatment Needed?
  5. Treatment Options
  6. What to Expect
  7. Home Remedies
  8. Prevention
  9. References

Dental cavities are common in children. Even though kids eventually lose their primary teeth, proper care and good oral hygiene are necessary. Frequent dental visits and eliminating high sugar diets can help protect developing permanent teeth by catching cavities earlier on.

Up to 27 percent of kids ages 2 to 5 have untreated cavities in their primary teeth. Even though baby teeth are temporary, taking care of them is crucial because they create and hold space for adult teeth.


Cavities develop after plaque forms on teeth and traps acid-causing sugars that eat away at the enamel.

Causes include:

  • Poor diet: a high sugar diet causes acid build-up on the enamel, weakening it and increasing the chances of cavities forming. In addition, frequent snacking fuels the plaque, leading to more damage.

  • Poor oral hygiene: inadequate brushing allows acids to sit longer on teeth. Acids in sugary foods attack teeth as soon as 20 minutes after every meal.

  • Genetics: Some kids experience cavities due to genetic factors contributing to a weaker enamel. These factors include tooth shape and low saliva production.

  • Tooth location: Cavities affect molars and premolars because of their position in the mouth, and the grooves and pits make it easy for cavities to develop.


With early tooth decay, a child will exhibit no visible symptoms. As a cavity grows indicating a cavity will emerge. Signs include:

  • Light brown discoloration is a sign of a cavity

  • White spots on teeth which are signs of decay

  • Increased sensitivity to cold or hot beverages and food

  • Discomfort or pain around the affected tooth

Depending on how young the child is, they may be able to articulate what they are feeling in their mouth and with their teeth.

So these are behaviors to watch:

  • Fussiness: a baby will cry, be cranky or tug at their ear if they are experiencing tooth pain.

  • Trouble eating: Tooth pain will prevent a child from eating comfortably, and they may stop eating certain foods altogether.

  • Weight loss: This is a direct result of the child not eating enough food because of tooth pain.

When to See a Dentist

Do not wait until your baby develops cavities to see a dentist. Health experts recommend taking your baby for their first dental visit as soon as their first tooth erupts or by their first birthday, whichever comes first. After that, take your child for dental visits every six months.

Take your child to the dentist if they complain of tooth pain or exhibit other symptoms. The dentist will carry out an oral exam and, depending on the results, will recommend monitoring or treatment.

Do Cavities in Baby Teeth Need to Be Treated?

Untreated cavities still cause pain, swelling, discomfort and infections in primary teeth, just as they do in permanent teeth. Bacteria in the infected tooth grow and multiply and affect the underlying bone.

A bacteria-riddled environment in the mouth will affect permanent teeth. Treating cavities in baby teeth can help protect the permanent teeth health.

Treatment Options

Your dentist may recommend several treatment options depending on how advanced the decay is. Among the options:

  • Restoration, or fillings

  • Remineralization

  • Tooth extraction

If the cavity is severe, the dentist will remove it by drilling away the affected area. Next, they will fill the resulting hole with resin, acrylic, silver, or other filling material.

This procedure usually happens in one visit. If the child has several cavities, the dentist may break up the visits.

Before the procedure, the dentist will need to inject numbing medicine into the mouth. Parents can choose sedation dentistry for their child to eliminate pain during the procedure.

If the cavities are small, they may repair themselves through good oral hygiene habits and a healthy dental-friendly diet. Brushing and flossing daily, eating calcium-rich foods, and a low-sugar diet may prevent the cavity from growing larger.

If the cavity is too large or the tooth is infected, a dentist will extract (pull) the tooth. The dentist will need to put in a spacer to create room for the adult teeth to erupt.

A dentist may determine that a tooth requires no treatment if the cavity is not severe or if the tooth is close to falling out on its own. In this case, they will recommend no treatment and suggest monitoring.

What to Expect at a Dental Visit for Treatment

A dental visit will include a full examination of a child’s teeth, gums, bite, jaw and oral tissues. The visit will last anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes.

The dentist will take X-rays to determine the course of action. If cavities are present, they may conduct a filling during the same visit or schedule one later.

Home Remedies for Cavity Pain

If a child experiences pain or discomfort caused by cavities, the following are remedies to help offer relief before seeing the dentist:

  • Over-the-counter medication can help numb the pain. Ensure that it is a child-friendly medication like acetaminophen (children’s Tylenol). Follow the instructions on the dosage as per the bottle or doctor’s recommendation.

  • A saltwater swish can help ease the pain and provide antibacterial protection. Add one teaspoon of salt to half a cup of hot water. Adjust the temperature with cold water before giving it to your child. Let them swish the mixture for a minute before they spit it out.

  • Clove oil provides strong pain relief thanks to an ingredient called eugenol. Because of how potent it is, mix a few drops with a carrier oil like coconut or olive oil. Dip tissue or a cotton swab or ball in the oil and apply it to the affected area. Monitor your child to prevent them from accidentally swallowing the cotton ball.

  • Use a cold compress if your child’s face is swollen. The compress will provide pain relief and reduce inflammation. If you do not have an ice pack, use frozen vegetables instead. Also, use a dry cloth or wet paper towel between your child’s face and the ice pack to prevent frostbite.


Children with cavities in their baby teeth have higher chances of developing cavities in their adult teeth. Here’s how parents can prevent tooth decay in children:

  • Ensure your child brushes their teeth twice a day with a fluoride-based toothpaste. Fluoride toughens the enamel and makes it hard for acid to penetrate. Ask the dentist for fluoride treatments or sealants for added protection for your baby’s teeth. 

  • Teach your child to floss at least once a day with a floss pick, water flosser, or pre-threaded flosser. These are child-friendly options.

  • Provide healthy snacks and limit sugary treats. Encourage low-sugar options like milk, yogurt, and cheese, all rich in calcium for strengthening teeth. Reduce your child’s sugar consumption through sweetened drinks, sticky candy, and fruit leather that erode the enamel and cause cavities.

  • Do not let your child fall asleep while sipping on a bottle of juice or milk. The sugar in them will stick to their teeth, providing a breeding ground for cavity-causing acids.

  • Maintain regular dental checkups for your child. Have your child see the dentist for a dental exam and clean up at least twice a year.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.