What causes toothache? 5 possible conditions
A toothache is pain you feel in or around your teeth. Learn about the symptoms, causes, and treatment. Read more
A toothache is pain that you feel in or around your tooth. Most often, toothache pain is a sign that there’s something wrong with your tooth or gums. Sometimes, however, toothache pain is referred pain. That means the pain is caused by a problem elsewhere in your body.
You should never ignore toothaches. Toothaches caused by tooth decay can get worse if left untreated. Toothaches are usually not life-threatening, but in some cases, they can be signs of serious conditions that require immediate medical treatment.
What Do Toothaches Feel Like?
Toothache pain can range from mild to severe, and it may be constant or intermittent.
You may feel:
- throbbing pain or swelling in or around your tooth or gum
- sharp pain when you touch your tooth or bite down
- tenderness and achiness in or around your tooth
- painful sensitivity in your tooth in response to hot or cold foods and drinks
- burning or shock-like pain, which is uncommon
Underlying Causes of Toothaches
Common Causes of Toothaches
Tooth decay is the most common reason for toothaches. If tooth decay goes untreated, an abscess can develop. This is an infection near your tooth or in the pulp inside your tooth. See your dentist right away if you think you have a dental abscess. In rare cases, the infection can spread to your brain, which can be life-threatening.
A toothache can also be caused by an impacted tooth. This happens when one of your teeth, usually a wisdom tooth, is stuck in your gum tissue or bone. As a result, it can’t erupt, or grow in.
Common Causes of Referred Pain Toothaches
Sinusitis is a condition in which your sinuses become inflamed due to a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection in your sinus cavity. Because the roots of your upper teeth are close to your sinuses, sinusitis can cause pain in your upper teeth.
Less Common Causes of Referred Pain Toothaches
Heart disease and lung cancer can also cause toothaches. In some cases, toothache may be a warning sign of a heart attack.
Heart and lung disease can cause toothache pain due to the location of your vagus nerve. This nerve runs from your brain to the different organs in your body, including your heart and lungs. It passes through your jaw.
Rare Causes of Referred Pain Toothaches
Trigeminal neuralgia and occipital neuralgia are painful neurological conditions that cause your trigeminal and occipital nerves to become irritated or inflamed. These nerves service your skull, face, and teeth. When they become inflamed, pain can feel like it’s coming from your teeth.
Toothaches usually require medical treatment. Home treatment may temporarily relieve your pain while you wait for your dentist or doctor’s appointment.
Most people go to a dentist for a toothache, since most toothaches are caused by problems with your teeth. Your dentist will use X-rays and a physical exam of your teeth to detect tooth decay or other dental problems.
Your dentist may give you painkillers and antibiotics to treat an infection. If your toothache is due to tooth decay, your dentist will remove the decay with a drill and fill the space with dental materials. An impacted tooth may require surgical removal.
If your dentist can’t find the cause of your toothache, they may refer you to a doctor for further diagnosis and treatment.
Your doctor may treat sinusitis with antibiotics or decongestant medications. In rare cases, they may use surgery to open your nasal passages.
Treatment for Trigeminal Neuralgia and Occipital Neuralgia
There’s no cure for these conditions. Treatment usually consists of relieving your pain with medications.
Treatment for Heart Attack, Heart Disease, and Lung Cancer
If your dentist suspects that you’re having a heart attack, they will send you to the emergency department. If your dentist suspects that you have heart or lung disease, they will refer you to a doctor for further testing.
Things that may help temporarily relieve your tooth pain include:
- over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin
- over-the-counter topical dental pain relievers, such as benzocaine (Anbesol, Orajel)
- over-the-counter decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), if your pain is due to sinus congestion
- clove oil applied to your aching tooth
When a Toothache Is an Emergency
Seek emergency treatment if you have the following symptoms, along with a toothache:
- swelling in your jaw or face, which may be a sign that your tooth infection is spreading
- chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or other signs of a heart attack
- wheezing, a cough that won’t go away, or coughing up blood, which may be signs of lung cancer
How to Prevent Toothaches
To help prevent toothaches, brush and floss your teeth at least twice a day and get dental checkups and cleanings twice a year, or as often as recommended by your dentist.
You can help keep your heart and lungs healthy by not smoking, eating a low-fat and high-fiber diet, and exercising at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week. Get your doctor’s permission before starting an exercise routine.
- Carr, A. (2016, February 17). Acute sinusitis: Can a sinus infection cause a toothache? Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/acute-sinusitis/expert-answers/toothache/faq-20058299
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014, November 25). Toothache: First aid. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-toothache/basics/art-20056628
- Myers, D. E. (2010). Toothache referred from heart disease and lung cancer via the vagus nerve. General Dentistry, 58(1), e2-5. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20129877
- Okeson, J. P. (2000, July). Non-odontogenic toothache. Northwest Dentistry, 79(5), 64-74. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11858065
- Trigeminal neuralgia. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://neurosurgery.ucla.edu/trigeminal-neuralgia
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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