Tooth Pain: Symptoms, Risks, and What to Do If You Have Painful Teeth

Dental pain is common and has many causes, including poor mouth hygiene, cavities, sinus infections and more. Here are treatments that help.

Aching teeth are one of the few health complaints that follow you through life. You don’t remember your first toothache, but your parent might. It probably happened when you were around 6 months old, when a baby tooth popped through your gums and made you uncomfortable and cranky.

Later, your baby teeth fell out and adult teeth broke through. Chances are they didn’t fit your mouth exactly right. So maybe you wore braces, then later a retainer. (If you wore braces, you weren’t alone. An estimated 4-plus million Americans—most of them children and teenagers—wear braces on their teeth, according to the American Association of Orthodontics.) As an adult, you’ve left many childhood things behind. But your teeth probably still hurt sometimes.

Tooth pain symptoms

Toothaches are one of the most common types of dental pain, and pain in general. Several studiesincluding 2001 research in the British Dental Journalhave found that tooth pain affects about half of the population during a 6-month period. Your teeth can hurt in various ways.  The pain can be sharp and sudden, a jolt that makes you sit up. Or it can be a dull, nagging throb or ache. It can affect just one tooth or several.

Sometimes the pain can feel like it’s coming from the area surrounding a tooth, or above or below it. It may be a soreness that extends to your jaw or under your cheekbones and behind your eyes. In some cases you could have a headache, fever, or a bad taste in your mouth.

Causes of tooth pain

If your teeth hurt, it could be a dental problem, a general health problem completely unrelated to your mouth, or something else. Before you start to treat your tooth pain, it’s important to identify the cause.

  • Tooth sensitivity. If you get a short, sharp pain in your mouth when you drink hot tea or chew ice, you may have this common problem. If you get the same sharp pain for no reason, your dentin, the material underneath the enamel, is probably very sensitive.
  • Cavities. These are permanent holes in your teeth caused by decay and other types of damage. Cavities don’t always hurt, but when they do, it feels like a pain or ache in or around the affected tooth.
  • Gum disease. Damage or inflammation of the gums inevitably affect the teeth they support. Signs of gum disease include swollen or bleeding gums, bad breath, and of course, tooth pain.
  • Grinding. Do you grind your teeth or clench your jaw, either at night or during the day? If so, that can damage your enamel and cause tooth pain.
  • Trauma. Any damage to your face or mouth can cause tooth pain and usually qualifies as a dental emergency.
  • Tartar. Plaque on your teeth does more than cause cavities. If you don’t brush and floss and see your dentist regularly, it can turn into a hard, crusty film called tartar, which can make your teeth ache.
  • Cold or flu. Congestion and any infection that affects your sinuses can make your teeth ache. The reason? The nerves in your face are so closely connected that any pain or pressure there can travel to your mouth.
  • Ear infection. Pressure and pain in your ear tubes are often a cause of tooth pain, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
  • Tight jaw. The jaw is intimately connected to your mouth and teeth, so any pain to that area could explain your toothaches.
  • No obvious reason. Sometimes you can have tooth pain that seems random, but actually makes sense. Did you bite something too hard? Floss too roughly? Do you have something stuck between your teeth? All of these can cause tooth pain.
  • Heart disease. Very rarely, cardiac problems can make your teeth ache. If you’ve ruled out all other causes and also have a history of heart disease, ask your doctor if this could be the reason.
  • Allodynia. This unusual medical phenomenon refers to physical pain from stimuli that don’t actually cause pain, such as the weather or stress. Your teeth are so likely to experience pain from mysterious sources that “dental allodynia” is considered quite normal.

Treatments for tooth pain

Once you have a clearer idea of what’s causing your tooth pain, you can take steps to get relief. Here are some approaches to consider:

  1. If you think your tooth pain is caused by sensitivity, you should avoid acidic, hot, and cold foods and beverages. In addition, try an over-the-counter pain reliever, a gentler toothbrush, a toothpaste specifically formulated for sensitive teeth, and consider wearing a mouth guard, especially when you sleep at night. Other at-home remedies for sensitive teeth also may help.
  2. If your tooth pain is caused by cavities, tartar, periodontal disease, or any other damage to your teeth, gums, jaw, or sinus area, you’ll need to consult a dentist. They may refer you to a dental specialist, such as an orthodontist (who can fit you for braces), a periodontist (who treats gum disease), or an endodontist (your go-to for root canals). Dental care can be expensive, and not all insurance plans cover it. Here’s how to get the dental care you need on a budget.
  3. If your toothache is caused by an underlying condition such as a cold, infections, or even anxiety or stress, managing those symptoms should clear up your dental pain. For example, if you’re congested, try an over-the-counter decongestant or a hot washcloth on your face to relieve the pain.
  4. Alternative remedies such as CBD can help some dental pain and problems, but not others.

dentist checking patient's teethLuis Alvarez/Getty Images

The science of tooth pain

Why do our teeth hurt so much, and so often? Blame the incredibly sensitive trigeminal nerve. It’s responsible for all your facial sensations and functions, including biting and chewing The so-called trigeminal sensory region includes a dizzying array of parts and functions in and near your head, including ears, eyes, jaw, teeth, and skin.

Problems with any of these—a headache, or ear infection—can cause toothaches. But because few doctors are trained in dentistry, and vice versa, these connections are rarely made.

Many scientists urge medical professionals to learn more about the trigeminal nerve. Damage to this region can cause chronic pain, poor quality of life, even depression. And this lack of knowledge may explain why so many people are afraid to go to the dentist.

Personal stories

Here are some stories of dental pain and problems that show what it’s like to deal with toothaches and other oral health issues.

Additional resources

Helpful products for tooth pain

Sources

Amy O'Connor
Amy O'Connor is Editor in Chief of Healthination.com, a leading developer of premium video and other content. She also teaches journalism at New York University and the City University of New York.