What causes a toothache?

Man holding his jaw with his hand and grimacing in pain

Toothache pain is the worst. You can’t see it, it doesn’t go away on its own and you can’t massage it like a muscle knot. It’s also a loud indicator of a serious problem that requires immediate attention from a dentist.

Most toothaches are the result of tooth decay, which means you probably have the result of that tooth decay or advanced gum disease. The pain you feel โ€“ usually when you eat or drink something sweet, very hot or very cold โ€“ is an alarm bell telling you that the pulp is irritated. The pulp is the inside of your tooth, where the tissue and nerves are located, so if something is wrong with the pulp, you’ll feel it in the entire tooth.

What causes a toothache?

A thorough oral exam is the best way to find out why you’re experiencing a toothache, but generally the reasons fall under one of these causes:

  • Infection
  • Gum disease
  • Grinding teeth (bruxism)
  • Tooth trauma
  • An abnormal bite
  • Tooth eruption (in babies and school-age children)

What are the symptoms that come with a toothache?

It’s important to pay attention to little things that might seem โ€œoffโ€ with your teeth and the inside of your mouth.

For example, you might have an abscess, which means that pus has collected around the tooth root. Pus can be a sign of a bacterial infection, especially if it’s accompanied by tissue inflammation, bleeding gums and bone loss around the tooth. In either case, you should see your dentist as soon as possible.

While an abscess means you should visit your dentist, any of the following means you might need to visit the emergency room:

  • Fever
  • Pain when you bite
  • A foul-tasting discharge
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Swelling around the tooth area
  • Continuous pain that doesn’t end (not just when you eat or drink something)

One overlooked issue related to toothaches is the presence of sepsis, which is when your body goes overboard in fighting an infection. If sepsis develops and is left untreated, it can kill you. Nearly 2,000 people a year are hospitalized with it, and it nearly always develops from a treatable bacterial infection. If you have a toothache, you need to get it examined. It’s too risky to bet that it won’t develop into a life-threatening condition like sepsis.

My dentist says there’s nothing wrong with my jaw or teeth. What’s my problem?

The body manifests pain in many ways, and in some cases, what seems to be a simple toothache isn’t one at all. Rather, the pain is a symptom of another problem. Extreme stress, prior traumas, heart conditions and even some forms of cancer can present pain in the mouth that appears to have no cause.

Do you have a cold or severe allergies? These can cause sinus pressure, which can also put pressure on the roots of your upper molars, leading to tooth pain. Talk with your doctor to see if an antihistamine might help relieve the pressure. If the pain doesn’t go away, see your dentist.

Also, if you suffer from chronic pain, migraines, limb movement disorders or similar problems, you should tell your dentist so he or she can better locate the source of your pain.

The words you use to describe your pain are important, too. The following words often describe types of pain that don’t originate in the mouth, so your dentist will probably ask for more details to help eliminate all known causes:

  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Electric
  • Searing
  • Stabbing
  • Numb

Your dentist will probably ask how long you’ve been feeling the pain, so try to keep notes for reference.

The most important thing to remember is that pain in your mouth is not normal. If your tooth hurts and something feels wrong, go to your dentist. Hopefully, it’s something minor that can easily be treated, but it’s not worth taking a risk that could endanger your health.

Related reading:

Last updated: June 2018
SmileWay Wellness Program

Stay Informed

Subscribe to our Wellness E-Magazine

Check out the latest issue

Read back issues

Connect with us

Follow Delta Dental on Facebook Follow Delta Dental on Twitter Join Delta Dental’s Google Plus Circle Check out Delta Dental’s YouTube videos