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A guide to Dental Fillings

Everybody hates fillings, don’t they? In fact, most of us hate fillings so much that we can’t bear to think about them, talk about them, look at them or even ask our dentists about them. Most of us, when we visit the dentist for a routine check-up, will simply sit there, stare at the ceiling and hope that the dreaded ‘f’ word doesn’t crop up in conversation.

Well, the fact is that we usually will have to discuss the ‘f’ word with our dentists, because sooner or later, most of us will need a filling (even if it is just a little one). Fillings are one of the most routine dental procedures which most dentists perform every day. But because we hate fillings so much, many of us don’t know too much about them. And, there are definitely some things that you really should know about fillings...

The good news is that there is now a much more diverse range of fillings available to choose from than there ever has been in the past. The bad news is that new types of fillings (such as white fillings) are often more expensive than standard treatments and most dentists would only recommend the extra cost for a very visible cavity. That’s why the majority of patients with a tooth cavity will usually end up with an ‘amalgam’.

Amalgam fillings are the traditional type of fillings that are usually black in colour. They are made from an amalgamation of a number of different metals which usually include tin, silver, copper and mercury - hence the colour. While amalgams are not the most visually attractive option for filling a cavity, they have the advantage of being very durable. This means that they can withstand the constant demands of chewing or tooth-grinding without breaking down or coming loose.

So amalgams have their plus points – of course, they’ve been used by dentists to fill cavities for decades, so you would expect them to. However, there is also one very important negative issue surrounding amalgams. Many people are against amalgam fillings because they contain mercury – which is very toxic to human beings.

The debate around the toxicity of the mercury in amalgam fillings has been raging for several years. According to the most recent research, around 8 million cavities in the UK are filled with amalgams each year. However, anti-amalgam campaigners (of which there is a growing number) claim that the mercury in amalgams is responsible for a variety of health issues, from headaches to Alzheimer’s disease.

So let’s look at the two sides of the debate. On one side are the authorities such as the FDA and the British Dental Association, who claim that the mercury in amalgams is tightly bonded into a compound with the other elements in your filling, so it poses no threat to your health. On the other side are a band of alternative therapists, dentists and even national governments such as Norway and Denmark, who believe that amalgams release mercury vapours which can contaminate your bloodstream. In Norway, Denmark and a number of other countries, amalgams are no longer recommended by dentists.

If you are concerned about amalgam fillings and the effect that they could have on or your children’s health, then there are a number of steps that you can take. First of all, speak to your dentist and find out their views on the subject. There are now many dentists in the UK who choose not to work with amalgams and prefer to only recommend other types of filling.

When you talk to your dentist, ask him or her about other options for fillings cavities. You may be surprised by how many choices you have. Whereas they can be more expensive than the cheaper amalgam, you could talk to your dentist about composite resins, glass or ceramic fillings – none of which contain mercury.

Finally, what can you do if you already have amalgam fillings – after all, most of us with NHS dentists probably do. It is possible to have you amalgam fillings replaced. Once again, talk to your dentist who will be able to explain much more about the procedure. There is a standard protocol involved which will ensure that the mercury is kept bonded within the amalgam while it is removed - ensuring that the filling can be replaced safely.

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