Temporary filling vs. permanent filling

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Temporary filling vs. permanent filling
A dentist replaces the tooth structure with an artificial material to restore the appearance and function of the tooth. (John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

A dental filling is a material used to replace missing tooth structure. Tooth structure is most often lost as a result of decay caused by the demineralisation of a tooth. The type of restoration technique used to repair a damaged tooth is determined by the severity of the damage and availability of restorative materials.

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What is a Temporary Filling?

Temporary fillings are made of materials that are intended to last for up to one month.

Zinc oxide eugenol is a material commonly used for temporary fillings. Temporary fillings are used when it is not possible or it would be detrimental to place a permanent filling. For example, if a patient has several dental cavities that require more than one appointment to fill, a dentist may restore teeth with a temporary material before placing permanent fillings. A temporary filling can also be used to soothe irritated nerves in a tooth's pulp or allow the pulp time to heal before a permanent filling is placed.

What is a Permanent Filling?

Permanent fillings, with proper care, can last from years to a lifetime. The procedure for placing a permanent filling includes drilling of the tooth to remove decayed enamel and dentine before filling it with either silver amalgam, composite resin or glass ionomer.

Silver Amalgam Fillings

Silver amalgam fillings are the strongest and most common type of dental filling. They are usually placed on the rear molars or on large, deep cavities. Silver amalgam is a mixture of 35% silver, 15% tin or tin and copper, a trace of zinc and 50% mercury. Silver amalgam fillings have been used since 1833, but have lost much popularity over the years due to their mercury content, tendency to expand with time and unattractive appearance.

Composite Resin Fillings

Composite resin fillings are made of a acrylic resins and finely ground glass. They are tooth-coloured so they resemble the colour of surrounding teeth for a natural appearance. Composite resin is applied to teeth in several semi-liquid layers that harden in minutes. An ultraviolet light is often used to accelerate hardening. These fillings tend to last between six and 12 years. They are not as durable as silver amalgam fillings, so they should not be placed in large molar cavities that must endure a lot of chewing. Composite resins sometimes shrink while setting, thus opening up gaps that allow bacteria access to the tooth's interior.

Glass Ionomer Fillings

Glass ionomer fillings are made of acrylic resins and powdered glass like composite resin fillings, but are available in fewer colours. They are the weakest type of filling, so they are not used on chewing surfaces. The greatest advantage to glass ionomer fillings is their ability to release fluoride; they can continue to strengthen enamel and fight bacteria long after they have been placed.

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