Tooth pain? Here’s what could be behind the pain

Toothaches are fairly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 40% of adults have experienced mouth pain in the last year.1

“Pain in and around the teeth is common, but it doesn’t always mean there’s something wrong,” says Bernard Hennessy, D.D.S., a clinical associate professor and the department head of comprehensive dentistry at the Texas A&M University School of Dentistry in Dallas.

Sometimes, though, that toothache could signal an infection. That can require more treatment. So, it’s important to know when to be seen. Read on to learn about toothaches and what steps to take to get them treated.

What causes toothaches

Toothaches can be temporary to more extreme, lasting days or weeks. Common types of toothaches are caused by:,3

  • Clenching or grinding your teeth
  • An abscessed tooth (buildup of pus) around the root of a tooth
  • A broken or loose tooth
  • Cavities
  • Gum disease
  • Teeth pushing through the gums (like wisdom teeth)

“If you go from no pain to ‘it’s starting to hurt,’ it’s usually a sign that the nerve inside the tooth is inflamed in some way,” says Dr. Hennessy. That’s a signal that something is off, he explains. Like a cavity has progressed, a wisdom tooth is erupting or there’s an infection brewing.

What triggers an infection

A cavity or a cracked, broken or injured tooth can become infected. If the problem isn’t treated, bacteria can get into the pulp. Once there, it can form an abscess. That’s when pus builds up in the pocket of the tooth’s root.

“An abscess is caused by the body trying to fight off the bacteria, and it usually happens because there’s an infection from bacteria that enters the pulp (nerve) from a cavity,” says Dr. Hennessy. “With an abscess, there can be swelling around the tooth or a bump on the gums, which is actually full of pus.”

An abscessed tooth causes more nonstop pain than a toothache. The main symptoms are:4

  • Pain and swelling in the area
  • Red gums
  • A bad taste in your mouth
  • Fever

When to see a dentist

Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can ease the pain of mild toothaches, notes Dr. Hennessy. “But when people have to start taking pain medication frequently and the pain keeps coming back, that’s a sign you want to see your dentist,” says Dr. Hennessy.

Other reasons to book an appointment with the dentist? If your toothache doesn’t go away, your toothache is associated with fever or if you experience spontaneous pain not caused by a cold drink or biting down on your teeth, explains Dr. Hennessy.

How is a toothache or abscessed tooth treated

Usually, a dentist will examine your tooth and take an X-ray, explains Dr. Hennessy. “Sometimes simple pain can be treated by filling a cavity or replacing a filling,” he says.

If the tooth has already become infected, the dentist will put you on antibiotics to clear it. If you have an abscessed tooth, you’ll need to get the tooth taken out or have a root canal. A root canal is when a dentist removes the infected pulp, cleans out the inside of the tooth, and fills it with a permanent filling or crown.5

How to prevent a toothache

Basically, take good care of your teeth, Dr. Hennessy advises. That includes:2

  • Brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste
  • Flossing once a day to keep teeth and gums free of plaque and bacteria
  • Seeing your dentist regularly

And if your teeth do begin to ache, don’t ignore the pain — no matter how mild. It’s easier to fill a small cavity or repair a filling than get a root canal. And a whole lot less expensive too.

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