What Causes a Toothache?

A toothache or tooth pain can be a minor annoyance – or it can be excruciating. It can also fit anywhere between those two extremes. However painful it may be, a toothache is something you want to avoid at all costs – and if it does happen, you want to be rid of it as soon as possible.

With that in mind, let’s look a little deeper at the many possible causes of a toothache (including an overview of toothaches) what you can do to avoid them, the best treatments, and when you know it’s time to seek professional help.

What is a toothache?

Simply put, a toothache is a catchall for anything that refers to pain in and around your teeth. It may be a minor, temporary irritation, or it could be the sign of a cavity, or it could even hint at a massive infection that threatens your entire health.

Minor tooth pains often go away with simple home treatment, however, any toothache that hangs around or is more painful requires professional dental treatment.

Common symptoms of a toothache may even include a wide range of sensations, including:

  • Continued dull ache
  • Sharp, stabbing tooth pain
  • Throbbing tooth pain
  • Teeth sensitivity
  • Bad breath or bad taste
  • Swollen gums

Let your dentist know if you experience any of these symptoms so that they can schedule an appointment for treatment.

However, if you experience any of these symptoms combined with headaches, fever, and chills it could be a sign of a more serious infection that requires immediate attention. Contact a dental professional immediately.

What causes a toothache?

Toothache causes may be triggered by several factors – everything from eating something that’s too cold or too hard, to poor dental hygiene. But the reason your tooth hurts is that the innermost layer of the tooth (dental pulp) is inflamed. The pulp contains nerves and blood vessels, and when the pulp is irritated, it sends a message to your brain, letting you know that something is wrong. That is why toothache and swelling often go hand in hand.

So, why may your dental pulp become inflamed? There are a host of factors that cause painful teeth, and we’ll take a closer look at the causes of toothaches below.

1. Cavity/tooth decay

When there is excess bacteria in your mouth (and on your teeth) you are liable to experience tooth decay. That’s because these microbes produce acids that eat away at the hard, outer layer of your tooth (enamel). This eventually causes cavities (dental caries), which expose the pulp inside the tooth and allow it to become irritated. Dental decay/cavity can lead to sensitive teeth or even sharp pain.

2. Abscessed tooth

Known as a periapical abscess, this is what happens when bacteria penetrate tooth pulp and cause an infection. The result is that a collection of pus forms at the end of the tooth, causing pain and discomfort. The best remedy is typically a root canal procedure along with a course of antibiotics. This is not the same as a gum abscess (periodontal abscess), which sees a buildup of pus in the gum, the swelling involved can pressure the tooth and cause a painful toothache.

3. Gum disease

Known as periodontitis, gum disease causes the gums to pull back and expose the softer, more sensitive parts of the tooth root. Gum disease (periodontal disease) can cause serious pain in the tooth.

4. Injury/trauma

If you suffer a cracked, chipped, or broken tooth, it can expose the inner part of the tooth and lead to a wide range of pain. Sometimes these cracks are even too small to be seen by the naked eye. Sometimes swelling can even hide the source of the problem. Lost or broken fillings may also produce the same conditions. Any injury to the joint that attaches the jaw to the skull (temporomandibular joint) can also lead to pressure and pain in your teeth.

5. Wisdom teeth

Because of their nature – late developing teeth that break through the gum line at the very back of the mouth – wisdom teeth can put severe pressure on surrounding teeth and cause serious pain. Toothache and swelling due to wisdom teeth can cause moderate to severe pain.

6. Teeth grinding/bruxism

Grinding your teeth can wear away at your enamel and/or cause cracked teeth. You may not even be aware that you’re grinding your teeth, as many people do it in their sleep. Bruxism is the term for grinding, clenching, and/or gnashing your teeth (this version most often occurs when you are awake).

7. Abnormal bite

An abnormal bite can put pressure on your teeth and, over time, cause cracks or wear away at the enamel, exposing the inner pulp of the tooth and causing toothache.

How long will a toothache last?

The simple answer is it varies. And the length of your toothache and swelling all depends on what the underlying cause is. For example, if you poke your gums on the corner of a tortilla chip, the resulting toothache will fix itself over time. However, if you have cavities, an infection, or a cracked tooth, you can expect the toothache pain to remain constant – even if your pain levels vary from moment to moment.

How do dentists treat toothaches?

The first thing a dentist will do is listen to your concerns and then perform a thorough exam of your mouth. They may even perform X-rays so that they can see the entirety of the tooth/teeth in question. How they respond will vary depending on the source of the pain.

Can I prevent toothaches?

There’s no such thing as a 100% method of avoiding a toothache, as some of the factors behind a toothache are out of your control. But the good news is that you can do a lot to help prevent tooth pain.

It starts with good oral health. Brush your teeth 2-3 times a day with fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush and be sure to floss between your teeth once daily. Limit eating and drinking sugary foods and beverages, and chew gum with xylitol (not aspartame or sugar) to help clean your mouth after meals. And see your dentist for twice-yearly cleanings and exams.

If you want to add a layer of protection to your teeth, ask your dentist about sealants.

Are there home remedies for toothaches?

If you’re experiencing a mild toothache, there are some simple remedies you can undertake to mitigate and ease the pain. But if you have severe tooth pain or even moderate pain that does not go away, you should contact your dentist for care.

Over-the-counter pain relievers – such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen – can also ease toothache symptoms, but toothache medicine only masks pain and does not cure your oral health problem.

Natural remedies that can help produce pain relief include:

Saltwater rinse

Rinsing your mouth/gargling with warm saltwater offers both pain relief and even acts as a mild disinfectant. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt into 8 ounces of warm water. Swish for 30 seconds, and then spit it out.

Hydrogen peroxide rinse

This is another disinfectant option – in fact, this can be a useful home remedy for anyone who has a history of gum concerns (such as sensitive and/or bleeding gums). DO NOT rinse with pure hydrogen peroxide. Mix equal parts water and hydrogen peroxide and make sure to spit all of it out. DO NOT swallow the hydrogen peroxide.

Ice packs

Ice helps with a wide range of pain and injury – including toothache relief –because it constricts blood vessels and reduces inflammation. So, if you have a toothache of any type – even severe – apply an ice pack (a bag of frozen veggies makes an excellent ice pack) to the affected area for 20 minutes. This can be repeated several times a day. Even if you know you need to go to the dentist, you can do this to help dull the pain until you can be seen.

When to seek medical care for a toothache

Any time you experience severe toothache pain, you should contact your dentist. Even if you have moderate tooth pain that lasts longer than two days, you should call your dentist. And if you ever experience toothache along with fever and chills you are likely experiencing a dental emergency and need to contact a dentist or other health professional right away – that’s because unaddressed tooth infections can eventually affect your heart, brain, and blood health. If this is the cause of your toothache, they will likely prescribe antibiotics for you immediately and get you into the office as soon as possible to deal with the infected tooth.

Other reasons to contact a dentist include dental injury (cracked, chipped, or broken teeth), excess bleeding that does not stop with pressure or swelling below your eye or a knot in your jaw.

Exams and tests for toothaches

A dentist can usually derive the source of a toothache relatively easily by listening to the patient and performing a thorough exam. 

However, sometimes a dentist will need to take x-rays of the tooth or entire mouth – including panoramic images of the teeth and jaw. If the source of the toothache is an infection, further tests may be required – especially if it has gone undiagnosed for a period of time. These may include EKG.

Don’t suffer from tooth pain

There is never a good reason to suffer from tooth pain and swelling! If you experience any type of toothache, know that Parrish-Childs Dentistry is here for you. Our full-service, friendly, and family-based approach to practice has served the health of patients throughout North Georgia for years.

Our highly qualified and friendly staff understands how to quickly find the cause of toothache and provide toothache remedies that will help you get back to a pain-free existence.

Do not wait to address a tooth concern. Call Parrish-Childs Dentistry today at 770-536-0581 and let us help provide immediate toothache pain relief.