Most people believe that when their dentist finds a cavity, their only option is a standard dental filling. While this works for small cavities, sometimes you need a filling that bridges the gap between a small filling and a dental crown. Dental inlays can be that bridge.

What is a dental inlay?

A dental inlay is a type of filling that treats tooth decay. Known as an indirect filling, a dental inlay is more involved than a typical dental filling that is installed in one office visit. Dental inlays can be made of the same types of material as regular dental fillings but are more durable than a composite filling. For tooth decay that has degraded part of a tooth’s biting surface, dental inlays reconstruct a natural-looking, durable tooth.

The dental inlay cost is much less than a crown or an extraction with a dental implant. In addition, many dental plans cover at least a portion of the cost. Although dental inlays can make your smile more beautiful, they are primarily used to support a tooth’s structure. This is why dental insurance covers much of the cost. Additionally, a tooth inlay means that an expensive extraction (or dental crown) is not necessary. This saves everyone money.

Dental inlays may cost more or less depending on the location of the clinic, the dentist’s experience and area of specialty, and the amenities they offer in their office.

Dental inlay vs. onlay

The difference between dental inlays and onlays is mostly concerned with how much of the biting surfaced is compromised. If the biting surface of the tooth is completely decayed, an onlay is the best choice. For tooth decay that only involves the side of the tooth or only a part of the biting surface, an inlay can repair the tooth and preserve whatever remains.

The placement of the inlays and onlays themselves is also different. Inlays, as their name suggests, are seated inside the tooth, whereas onlays cover only the surface of the tooth.

Dental inlay vs. crown

Dental inlays treat a different level of tooth decay than a crown does. When your dentist finds a cavity, the next step is to assess how much of the tooth is decayed. If the tooth decay is so extreme that the majority of the tooth is involved, your dentist might choose to use a crown for the restoration.

A crown replaces the entire tooth above the gumline, anchoring to a prepared surface of tooth that remains below the gumline. An inlay is used when the natural tooth can still support an onlay.

If there were a hierarchy of intervention, your dentist would start with a filling, then choose between an inlay and an onlay, and only then consider a crown. The goal is to protect and preserve as much of the natural tooth as possible.

What can I expect during a tooth inlay procedure?

A tooth inlay procedure is the same whether you are getting inlays or onlays. Your dentist or hygienist locates a cavity using a physical examination, noting areas of “stickiness” with a dental scaler. Once they confirm the size and location of the cavity with an X-ray, they may decide to restore the tooth with a dental inlay.

You will schedule two, hour-long appointments with your dentist. For the first appointment, your dentist will prepare the tooth by removing the decay and making sure it is clean and free of debris. They will then take a mold of your teeth and then fit and place a temporary filling while your dental inlay is being custom-made for you.

This first appointment should not be painful. Your dentist provides a local anesthetic for any pain due to removing the decay. If you are concerned about potential pain, talk to your dentist. Their goal is to make sure your experience is pain- and anxiety-free. If anxiety makes you reluctant to seek treatment, your dentist may offer you a mild sedative before or nitrous oxide during your appointment.

Once your dental inlay is ready, you will return for your second appointment. Your dentist removes the temporary filling and applies the dental inlay, fixing it in place with dental cement. They will check the bite and make any adjustments that are necessary to ensure your comfort and proper bite. Again, this procedure should not be painful, but talk to your dentist if you are concerned.

Side effects for dental inlays are rare and usually minor. Dental inlay side effects may include:

  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Pain
  • Infection

Tooth sensitivity

You may experience tooth sensitivity for a few days or weeks following your procedure.

This is normal and can be treated by using a sensitive teeth toothpaste and staying away from foods that are extremely hot or cold.


As noted above, pain is usually a result of extensive preparation of the tooth (e.g., deep cavities).

You can treat any soreness after the first appointment with over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, if approved by your dentist.


There is always a risk of infection in dental procedures, but it is very low. In rare cases for people with compromised immune systems, dental work can lead to infection.

Good communication with a dentist who knows your history can help. They may suggest pre-operative antibiotics to prevent infection.

How long do dental inlays last?

Dental inlays have a projected lifespan of around 20 years. In general, the material used affects the longevity of dental inlays. Gold is generally the longest-lasting (and most expensive) option.

As with all dental work, your dental inlays will last longer the better you care for them. You can help your inlays stay strong and beautiful by:

  • Brushing properly twice a day
  • Flossing at least once
  • Rinsing with a non-alcoholic mouthwash once a day

Visiting your dentist for twice-yearly cleanings and checkups can also help extend the life of your inlays, especially if you develop a long-term relationship with the same dental office.

AZ Dentist is your Phoenix area cosmetic dentist with extensive experience with inlays for both cosmetic and functional dental health. We’d love to be your family dentist. Get in touch today!

Schedule Your Appointment