When you go for your biannual dental cleaning, it’s often a routine procedure for them to check for cavities. If your dentist or dental hygienist finds an area of tooth decay, the most common treatment is a tooth filling.

What is a dental filling?

Dentists use a dental filling to “fill in” the gap left when tooth decay or other debris is removed from teeth. Dental fillings come in four basic materials:

  • Composite resin
  • Amalgam
  • Gold
  • Porcelain

Composite resin

The most common of tooth filling materials, composite resin is a tooth-colored compound used on teeth that will not experience excessive biting force. Of the dental fillings, composite resin is generally the most affordable and quickest to apply.


Easily recognizable due to their silver color, dentists do not use amalgam fillings for most dental applications any longer.

Many patients experience sensitivity to this type of fillings. In addition, the presence of mercury in this dental filling makes some patients unlikely to choose this material.


Gold is universally well tolerated in patients but is the most expensive choice of materials.

Application of gold fillings also requires multiple visits. These fillings can last 20 years or more.


Porcelain fillings, also called inlays or onlays depending on where they fit on the tooth, are a less common dental filling, but can be an excellent option for some. These fillings are created in a lab and require multiple visits to fit. Similar in cost to gold fillings, they are also one of the most durable filling materials.

Dental fillings work well unless a large amount of the tooth is decayed. In these cases, a crown or a cap might be the best option.

What can I expect during and after a tooth filling procedure?

Your dentist will diagnose a cavity in need of a filling with a dental exam or an X-ray. Cavities are sticky areas on the teeth when probed with a dental scaler. If your dentist or hygienist finds a sticky spot, they may ask for an X-ray to confirm the cavity and measure its size.

In most cases, you will be given a local anesthetic prior to cleaning out the decay. The amount of anesthetic will depend on the depth of your cavity. Once the area surrounding the cavity is numb, your dentist or hygienist will remove the tooth decay with a power tool. They will then ensure that all debris is gone.

The next step will depend on the type of filling you receive. For composite resin dental fillings, the material will be color matched, mixed, and applied directly to the empty space in your tooth. The material is applied in layers. Once the cavity is filled, your dentist will shape and polish the material, making sure the filling material has not changed your bite. They then use a special light to harden the material.

The procedure for amalgam dental fillings is similar to the one for composite resin. There is no need to worry about color matching as this type of filling stands out and is most often used for less visible back teeth.

Gold and porcelain fillings require two visits. On the first visit, your dentist will remove the tooth decay and take a mold of your teeth. They apply a temporary filling, usually of composite resin. Once your gold or porcelain filling is created, your dentist removes the composite resin filling and affixes the gold or porcelain one with dental cement. They will check for fit and proper bite.

Are dental fillings painful?

For most patients, getting a dental filling is not painful. Tooth filling pain does not necessarily come from the procedure itself. Your dentist will make sure that the area around your tooth is completely numb before proceeding, and they’ll check in to make sure you are as comfortable as you can be during the procedure.

In some cases, doctors offer nervous patients a mild sedative or nitrous oxide du