5 common causes of dental pain — and how to help get relief

There can be several reasons why a person’s mouth may be hurting. Maybe there’s something going on with the teeth or gums. It could be a sign of a dental issue. The sooner the source of the pain is dealt with, the better you may feel. And in some cases, treatment may be needed from a dentist to prevent the issue from getting worse.

Luckily, there are ways to help ease the pain. Learn about 5 common causes of mouth pain — and what to do to help treat them.

1. Cavities

Also known as tooth decay, cavities are a fact of life for a lot of people. About 90% of adults have had a cavity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1

Bacteria in the mouth feed on the foods people eat, producing acids that attack the tooth’s surface, or enamel. Over time, the enamel may break down. This can lead to a hole, which is the cavity.2 Cavities appear most often on the tops of the teeth or in between them, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).3

What’s causing the pain: If cavities aren’t treated, bacteria travel through the layers of the tooth.3 “If enough time goes on, you’ll have inflammation that reaches the nerves That’s when you’ll feel pain,” says Wendy Gulden, D.D.S., an endodontist in Laguna Hills, California.

What it may feel like: A dull pain that may radiate to other areas of your face, such as the jaw or sinuses, explains Dr. Gulden. Drinking or eating something hot or cold may cause a sharp quick response or a dull achy response, she adds.

How to help treat the pain: For short-term relief, take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen, suggests Dr. Gulden. These are sold over the counter (OTC).

But cavities don’t disappear on their own. They get worse. Schedule a dentist appointment to learn more about treatment options.

2. Mouth sores

These are also known as mouth ulcers or canker sores. They are usually small and white, and they can develop anywhere inside the mouth, including the inside of the cheeks or lips, or on the tongue or gums.4 (They are different from cold sores. Those appear on the outside of the mouth or lips.)

What’s causing the pain: Mouth sores can occur for different reasons — such as stress, food allergies, hormonal changes and viruses — depending on the person.4 Mouth sores are unrelated to gum disease, but they can sometimes be uncomfortable.

“You could also experience mouth sores from brushing too hard, if you’ve cut your lip or the inside of your mouth by eating a piece of bread with a hard crust, or even by eating something too hot, like pizza,” says Olga Krikunenko, DMD, a dentist and owner of Mint Dental of Franklin, in Franklin, MA. .

What it may feel like: Canker sores may burn or tingle in the beginning. Once they progress, they’ll hurt.5 That pain may get worse when eating, chewing or even talking.

How to help treat the pain: OTC topicals specifically made for canker sores can numb the area to ease the pain, notes Dr. Gulden. If the source of the mouth sore pain is viral, it can be treated with antiviral medication,” she adds.

If the pain lasts more than 2 weeks, go to the dentist, recommends Dr. Gulden. A provider or dentist can diagnose the problem and prescribe medication or even a special mouthwash to treat the sore.4

UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members with dental coverage can download the UnitedHealthcare® app to find dental care, manage plan details and more.

3. Gum disease

Gum disease starts out as an infection in the tissue surrounding the teeth. Mild gum disease is called gingivitis. Without treatment, gingivitis may turn into periodontitis, the more severe form of gum disease.

What’s causing the pain: Inflamed gums. With periodontitis, teeth can become loose and more exposed as the gums recede.6

What it may feel like: Gum disease may not always cause pain, unless the infection is severe. “A lot of times people will walk around with moderate or mild cases of gum disease and not realize they have it because they don’t have pain,” says Dr. Krikunenko. “That’s why it is best to not miss your dental visits, because you may have a bigger problem than you realize.”

But over time, gums can become red, swollen or inflamed from the infection. They can feel tender and may bleed when a person brushes their teeth (or even just eat, in later stages). Or the teeth may ache when people chew.6

How to help treat the pain: OTC pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can relieve aching teeth and gums. But gum disease doesn’t get better on its own.

The key is going to the dentist. “Your dentist may prescribe an antibiotic for the infection,” says Dr. Gulden. They also may recommend tools, like water picks or special medications, that can keep gum disease in check. It’s important to continue visiting the dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings.6

4. Clenched jaw or tooth grinding

Many people clench their jaws or grind their teeth, day or night. Dentists call this bruxism. There’s been an uptick in cases in the last few years, mainly because of stress due to the pandemic, according to the ADA.7

What’s causing the pain: When people grind their teeth, it puts pressure on the muscles and tissue of the jaw. A serious case of bruxism can result in cracked or chipped teeth. Or the tooth enamel can wear down, exposing more of the nerve. That can lead to sensitive or painful teeth.8

What it may feel like: Besides achy teeth, the jaw may feel sore too — or tight. Tooth grinding can also lead to headaches and general pain around the face.

How to help treat the pain: Apply cold or warm compresses to the jaw to help ease soreness. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen can also ease muscles aches.

Since stress may make bruxism worse, think about ways to relax before bed or before going to work. That may include listening to music, working out or doing quick yoga stretches.8

A dentist may also be able to help, by giving a person a plastic mouthguard to wear at night. They can also fix any cracked or chipped teeth by putting in crowns.8

5. A broken or cracked tooth

Teeth can fracture or crack for a variety of reasons, such as an injury or wear and tear over time. Other reasons include fillings that haven’t been repaired, grinding teeth and repetitive habits such as chewing on ice, explains Dr. Gulden.

What’s causing the pain: “The nerves inside the tooth can get exposed to hot and cold beverages. Bacteria can also enter the tooth more easily, possibly causing an infection,” Dr. Gulden says. The sharp edges of a broken tooth may also scrape the tongue or the inside of the cheek. (Ouch!)

What it may feel like: Mainly sensitivity to hot and cold, or it might hurt to chew food. “The pain may start out as sharp and quick, and then will lead to a dull ache,” says Dr. Gulden.

How to help treat the pain: OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can ease the soreness. But ultimately, a dentist has to step in. That might involve putting a crown on a cracked tooth.9 Or it could mean a root canal or tooth extraction if it’s broken, notes Dr. Gulden.

It’s never a good idea to ignore a sore mouth or let it go on too long, no matter how mild the pain, explains Dr. Krikunenko. “If you are at all concerned and the pain hasn’t gone away in a few days, you want to see your dentist to evaluate the problem,” she says.

Even better, stick to regular dental checkups. A dentist can spot a problem such as gum disease or bruxism long before it starts to hurt — and nip those conditions before they become a real pain.

Protect what you have. Schedule routine cleanings and exams with a dentist twice a year. Already a UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage member with dental coverage? Sign in to your plan website to review dental benefits and schedule an appointment.

Already a UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage member?

Get more to smile about. Have dental coverage? Review coverage and benefits and schedule routine cleanings and exams with a dentist.