While they aren’t overly common these days, amalgam fillings — commonly called silver fillings — have been used in dentistry for over a century. Like modern filling materials, amalgam dental fillings were used by dentists who drilled cavities out of people’s teeth. These fillings aren’t just silver in color, however, they also contain metal that makes them extremely strong and durable.
While many amalgam fillings contain metals like silver, about half of them contain mercury as a main element. The mercury is used to make the fillings more pliable during the setting process while still being very resistant to damage once they have set. Largely due to their metal content, amalgam fillings are some of the most durable fillings on the market. However, due to the mercury content in many of these fillings, some people wonder if they are safe and if they should be replaced with non-mercury dental filling materials.
Should Amalgam Fillings be Removed?
Before we answer that question, it’s very important to note that the American Dental Association verifies that the mercury present in amalgam filling has not been proven to cause any adverse health effects. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason to remove your amalgam fillings unless they are damaged. Yes, amalgam fillings expose patients to a small amount of mercury, but people are exposed to it in greater amounts in wide variety of ways. Common methods of harmful mercury exposure involve eating specific types of seafood or wearing certain types of jewelry over a long period of time.
Removing amalgam fillings that are not already damaged can actually cause more damage to the tooth and end up exposing the patient to significantly more mercury than would otherwise occur. So, if your amalgam fillings are fully intact and there is no decay in the surrounding tooth, you’ll be better off leaving the fillings in place. The only time an intact amalgam filling should be removed is if the patient is experiencing an extremely rare allergic reaction to the filling. If there is suspicion of an allergic reaction, the patient should discuss it with their dentist.
Types of Damage in Amalgam Fillings
Any type of dental filling material is susceptible to damage over time. Very few fillings last through a person’s lifetime, and many of them need to be replaced eventually. As mentioned above, amalgam fillings are no different and should be removed and replaced — preferably with a non-mercury filling alternative — if they have become damaged. Any filling can be damaged, and you should be on the lookout for these types of damage:
- Cracks – A filling can become cracked through normal wear and tear or in conjunction with a tooth injury. Cracked fillings allow bacteria to enter your tooth and can result in cavities or other dental problems.
- Decay – Unfortunately, fillings are not perfect. If your filling material is leaking or your filling has cracked decay can occur underneath the filling. There are no essentially no early symptoms of tooth decay, but your cavity will eventually become large enough to start causing symptoms.
- Faulty Seals – When your dentist places your filling, there is a small risk that the seal between the tooth and the filling material is faulty. This can occur if saliva wasn’t fully removed from the filling location prior to filling placement. LIke cracks, an improper seal can allow bacteria to enter the tooth, shortening the lifespan of the filling.
Getting Your Fillings Examined
Most people have no idea that their fillings are damaged until it’s too late to save the tooth or place a new filling. Regular dental checkups allow your dentist to check your fillings for damage so that they can make sure that your oral health isn’t at risk. This is doubly true for older amalgam fillings because your dentist can make sure that you are not being exposed to excessive amounts of mercury from a damaged filling.
If you have a dental exam every six months like your dentist suggests, they can screen your teeth for potential filling damage or tooth decay around the fillings. This simple step can save you from a lot of pain and unnecessary mercury exposure if damage has occurred.