You wake up in the middle of the night with a dull ache in your mouth, bite into a tootsie roll to a sharp pain, or notice a bad stench even after you brush your teeth; these are all signs that all is not well with your teeth, and necessitate seeing your dentist right away. But do you know the difference between tooth pain caused by infection, cavities, tooth trauma, or everyday sensitivity? The following guide can help you determine the cause of your toothache – although it’s still recommended that you see your dentist for treatment.
I have pain in one or more teeth when I eat or drink something that’s very hot, cold, or sugary.
You may have a cavity or gum disease. Pain from tooth decay or cavities is a result of the sensitive nerve endings in the “pulp” of the tooth becoming exposed, which causes sharp pain when touched with very hot or cold foods. In some cases, an untreated cavity can lead to an infection or gum disease, in which parts of the roots of your teeth or jaw bone can become exposed. These conditions tend to be extremely painful, and infections can lead to other health issues.
Treatment: It’s best to get to your dentist right away if you suspect you have a cavity; a cavity that becomes infected will require a root canal or removal of the tooth. After a cavity procedure, your dentist will prescribe pain medication or antibiotics to speed the healing process and prevent infection. If you can’t see your dentist right away, you can stave off the pain that comes with a cavity by rinsing your mouth with warm salt water, flossing gently to remove any irritating food or plaque buildup to prevent further irritation.
I have a bad taste or discharge in my mouth, which may or may not be accompanied by a fever.
You may have advanced gum disease or an abscessed or infected tooth. A cavity that becomes infected may cause a foul taste in your mouth, and result in some nasty discharge from the affected tooth. If you have an impacted tooth, where part or all of your tooth is trapped beneath your gums, infections may occur from bacteria buildup in the space between your gums and teeth. If the infection is severe, you may also feel feverish; similarly, with gum disease, infected gums can cause digestive problems and virus-like symptoms such as fever or chills.
Treatment: For severe cases where fever or pus is involved, it’s recommended that you see your dentist or doctor immediately for in-office treatment. Your dentist will likely prescribe pain medication and antibiotics, and may need to perform a root canal or extract and infected tooth. A few over-the-counter antiseptics can be used to temporarily numb the gums and relieve pain, but ask your dentist before applying these directly to your gums.
I have a headache or jaw ache in addition to my toothache, which may affect more than just one tooth.
You may have TMJD, a disorder of the jaw joint, or a sinus or ear infection. TMJD can be caused by grinding or clenching your teeth, abnormal mouth closure like an overbite or underbite, or trauma to the jaw. If you have trouble chewing or opening your mouth fully, your pain may be TMJ-related; if your jaw pain comes with sinus pressure, an abnormally long struggle with a virus, or difficulty hearing, it may be caused by an ear infection. The ear canal and jaw joint are very close together, and tend to affect each other when one is compromised.
Treatment: If you can’t see your dentist right away, a few at-home remedies can alleviate pain from TMJD and sinus infections. For jaw pain, exercises like stretching or gentle yoga can help relax the muscles around your face and neck and can relieve some pain; an ice pack or cold compress can help numb the pain. Ear drops or other over-the-counter medications can help treat the symptoms of a sinus infection.
I have pain around my teeth and jaws, but it’s not centralized to any one tooth.
Pain in around your teeth and jaw, like a headache, can be caused by TMJD or consistent grinding or grating of your teeth. In more serious cases, pain around your jaw may be related to a non-dental medical illness, such as heart disease.
Treatment: Because heart disease isn’t a “dental” problem, you may feel pain similar to that of a toothache, but there are few home treatments that can alleviate the discomfort. If aching around your teeth and jaws are your only symptoms, and aren’t accompanied by pains in other parts of your body, talk to your dentist first. However, if you’re experiencing these mouth-related pains on top of shortness of breath, pain throughout your body, or other whole-body symptoms, see an urgent care physician immediately to prevent further harm.