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The Truth Behind a Toothache

Ouch! Toothaches can be very painful. A toothache often means that something is not right in your mouth or somewhere else in your body. Find out what could be at the root of yours, what you can do to feel better, and when you should call your dentist.

Why Does My Tooth Hurt?

Cavities are the most common toothache culprit, but only an oral exam will be able to tell for sure what’s at the root of your pain. Here are some other reasons why your tooth may be throbbing:

  • A bacterial infection in the nerve of the tooth, called an abscess

  • Gum disease

  • Teeth grinding

  • Getting hit in the jaw or teeth while playing sports or other activities

Woman with mouth pain

Sinus or ear infections can also cause a toothache. They are often accompanied by a headache.

What Can I Do to Ease the Pain?

An over-the-counter pain medication such as Advil or Tylenol may help ease the pain temporarily. Here’s what else you can do to try to make the pain go away:

  • Rinse with warm salt water.

  • Gently floss your teeth to see if any food might be trapped there.

  • Apply a cold compress to the outside of the cheek to reduce swelling, especially if an injury is causing your pain.

Should I Call My Dentist?

See your dentist if your toothache lasts longer than a day, because your condition can worsen if left untreated. If your tooth becomes infected, for instance, your dentist may need to pull the tooth or perform a root canal to remove the damaged tissue from the tooth. Contact your dentist immediately if you experience fever, difficulty breathing or swallowing, swelling around the tooth, or pain when you bite, which could signal a cracked tooth. Your dentist may prescribe pain medication or antibiotics to provide some relief and aid the healing process.

The best way to prevent a toothache is to maintain good oral hygiene—brushing gently twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and flossing at least once a day—and wearing a mouth guard when playing sports.

“Alleviate Toothache Pain.” Academy of General Dentistry. January 2012. www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=T&iid=337&aid=1362. Accessed 2013.

“Dental Emergencies & Injuries.” American Dental Association. www.ada.org/370.aspx. Accessed 2013.

“Do You Have a Cracked Tooth?” American Dental Association. http://www.ada.org/sections/scienceAndResearch/pdfs/patient_25.pdf. Accessed 2013.

“How Your Dentist Can Help.” Academy of General Dentistry. January 2012. www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=T&iid=337&aid=1362. Accessed 2013.

“Ibuprofen.” Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a682159.html#brand-names. Accessed 2013.

“Pain Medications - non-narcotic.” Medline Plus.” National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002123.htm. Accessed 2013.

“Tooth Abscess.” Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001060.htm. Accessed 2013.

“Toothaches.” Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003067.htm. Accessed 2013.

"What Causes a Toothache?” Academy of General Dentistry. January 2012. www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=T&iid=337&aid=1362. Accessed 2013.

“Why Does My Tooth Ache?” Academy of General Dentistry. January 2012. www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=T&iid=337&aid=1362. Accessed 2013.

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