Background In recent decades, studies in the field of public health have increasingly focused on social determinants that affect the health-illness process. The epidemiological perspective considers oral health to be a reflection of socioeconomic and environmental aspects, and it is particularly influenced by the social context. The aim of the present study was to assess the association between the severity of dental caries among adults aged 35 to 44 years and characteristics on the different levels at which the determinants of caries operate (individual, social structure and social context). Methods A home-based, cross-sectional field study was carried out involving a sample of 1,150 adults (35 to 44 years of age) residing in metropolitan Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The DMFT (decayed, missing, filled tooth) index (≥14) was used to determine the severity of dental caries. Bivariate and multivariate analyses were carried out using the Poisson regression model with the level of significance set at 5% (p < 0.05) and 95% confidence intervals. Results The majority of the participants (68.5%) had high caries severity. The rate of high-severity caries in the group between 40 and 44 years of age was 1.15-fold (CI: 1.04-1.26) greater than that among those aged 35 to 39 years. A greater prevalence of high caries severity was found among those who frequently visited the dentist (PR = 1.18; CI: 1.07-1.30), those with a lower income (PR = 1.11; CI: 1.01-1.23), those who reported that their neighborhood did not come together in the previous year to petition political leaders for benefits (PR = 1.16; CI: 1.05-1.28) and those who are unable to make decisions (without empowerment) (PR = 1.12; CI: 1.01-1.24). Conclusions The present study revealed high dental caries severity in adults, which was associated with individual characteristics, health-related behavior and social structure and contextual variables. These findings underscore the importance of considering social determinants involved in the health-illness process when carrying out epidemiological studies on dental caries.