Tooth decay is the primary cause of toothaches for most children and adults. Bacteria that live in your mouth thrive on the sugars and starches in the food you eat. These bacteria form a sticky plaque that clings to the surface of your teeth.
Acids produced by the bacteria in plaque can eat through the hard, white coating on the outside of your teeth (enamel), creating a cavity. The first sign of decay may be a sensation of pain when you eat something sweet, very cold or very hot. A toothache often indicates that your dentist will need to work on your teeth.
Until you can see your dentist, try these self-care tips for a toothache:
- Rinse your mouth with warm water.
- Use dental floss to remove any food particles wedged between your teeth.
- Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever to dull the ache.
- Apply an OTC antiseptic containing benzocaine directly to the irritated tooth and gum to temporarily relieve pain. Benzocaine has been linked to a rare but serious, sometimes deadly, condition (methemoglobinemia) that decreases the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry. Don't use benzocaine in children younger than age 2 without supervision from a health care professional, because this age group has been the most affected. Never use more than the recommended dose of benzocaine. Direct application of oil of cloves (eugenol) also may help. Don't place aspirin or another painkiller directly against your gums, as it may burn your gum tissue.
Call your dentist
- When you have signs of infection, such as swelling, pain when you bite, red gums or a foul-tasting discharge
- If the pain persists for more than a day or two
- When you have fever with the toothache
- If you have trouble breathing or swallowing
- Dental emergencies and injuries. American Dental Association. http://www.ada.org/6152.aspx?currentTab=1. Accessed Sept. 21, 2011.
- Toothache and infection. The Merck Manuals: The Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dental_disorders/dental_emergencies/toothache_and_infection.html?qt=toothache%20and%20infection&alt=sh. Accessed Sept. 21, 2009.
- What causes a toothache? Academy of General Dentistry. http://www.knowyourteeth.com/infobites/abc/article/?abc=P&iid=323&aid=1307. Accessed Sept. 21, 2011.
- Benzocaine topical products: Sprays, gels and liquids - Risk of methemoglobinemia. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm250264.htm. Accessed Apr. 8, 2011.
- Caries (tooth decay). American Dental Association. http://www.ada.org/5162.aspx?currentTab=1. Accessed Sept. 21, 2011.