There are lots of reasons why your teeth or gums might feel sensitive, sore or even outright painful. Find out possible causes and what you can do to help.
Do you feel throbbing dental pain or a toothache that comes and goes? Do your teeth suddenly feel sensitive when you drink hot beverages or eat an ice block?
Sudden tooth pain could be a sign of a problem, but not all types of dental discomfort are a mystery. Your teeth may be more naturally sensitive than others’, or you may have just received dental work that’s caused temporary tenderness or soreness.
If you’re experiencing severe dental pain (discomfort that causes you to lose sleep or have problems concentrating, for instance), see a dental professional as soon as you can. Find an emergency dentist near you.
When to see a dentist
A toothache may be temporary and go away on its own, but it's usually a good idea to see a dentist just to be safe. You should seek emergency dental care if:
- a toothache lasts longer than 2 days
- your teeth hurt while chewing
- pain relief medication isn’t working
- you have a fever or any swelling in your cheek or mouth (these might be signs of an infection).
If swelling in your mouth or neck is making it hard to breathe, speak or swallow, you may need urgent medical attention. Visit your nearest emergency room or call 000 (Australia) or 111 (New Zealand).
Possible causes behind dental pain
Tooth pain or temperature sensitivity can be symptoms of an oral health problem. Your dentist will try to find out what's causing your toothache so they can help treat both the root of the problem and the symptoms.
Some common dental problems that can cause toothache or tooth sensitivity include:
- tooth decay
- cracked teeth
- mouth ulcers
- worn teeth
- loose or damaged fillings
- loose or damaged braces
- impacted wisdom teeth
- receding gums
- gum disease.
To diagnose your problem correctly understanding the type of pain you have had from the tooth is very important. Your dentist will ask you questions such as:
- is the tooth sensitive to cold, hot or sweet things?
- is it tender to chew on?
- do you get pain spontaneously?
- When you get pain how long does it last for?
- Have you taken any medications for the sore tooth? If so what have you taken and has it helped?
- How long have you been experiencing these symptoms?
- Did anything occur that prompted the symptoms?
It is very important that you can answer these questions to ensure the problem is correctly diagnosed. Your dentist will also examine the mouth and may recommend an x-ray to assess the problem.
Once your dentist has established the cause of the pain they will discuss with you your treatment options. This may be anything from no treatment, to a filling, root canal treatment or extraction of the tooth.
Why do my teeth hurt when I’m sick?
As if you don’t have enough to worry about when you’re sick, but certain symptoms of other health problems can cause toothaches (or worsen an existing toothache). Inflamed sinuses can be a side effect of flus, colds or sinus infections — this inflammation may put pressure on the roots of your upper teeth, possibly causing sensitivity or an aching feeling in your teeth.
If you’re unwell, you should see a doctor and be sure to mention any dental discomfort. But if you’re feeling better and the dental discomfort hasn’t gone away, or the discomfort has lasted longer than 2 days, you should consider seeing a dentist too as sometimes a dental problem may be present but not painful until the body becomes run down due to another illness.
Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw can potentially cause dental pain. Teeth grinding and clenching can themselves be symptoms of a deeper problem, but they risk damaging your teeth or causing dental pain regardless of any underlying causes.
To help protect your teeth and lower your risk of a toothache, try to find ways to avoid or manage teeth grinding. But we know that’s sometimes easier said than done! A dentist or doctor may be able to help or offer advice. For instance, if you grind your teeth while you're asleep, your dentist may suggest a custom-fitted night guard to wear over your teeth at night to help prevent damage to your teeth.
Discomfort caused by dental treatments
Having certain kinds of dental treatments or even just a professional teeth cleaning can sometimes cause temporary discomfort. If you feel dental pain after a root canal, filling or crown, this should go away within a few hours or a couple of days. You may be able to manage it with pain relief medication or self-care. Toothaches after getting braces should also be temporary as your mouth adjusts to the feel of braces and gradual movement of your teeth.
If a toothache lasts longer than a few days or if you notice other side effects, consider contacting a dentist to make an urgent appointment.
More than just a toothache?
Sometimes, tooth pain may only be one symptom of many.
If your toothache is accompanied by jaw pain when yawning, ear pain or neck stiffness, you could have a joint disorder such as temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJD). Dentists can help diagnose jaw joint problems or refer you to a qualified health professional if the problem is related to another joint.
How to help deal with sensitive, sore or aching teeth
If your teeth are feeling tender because of recent dental work or an orthodontic treatment, your dentist will usually give you advice during your appointment. They might give you an idea of how long you can expect discomfort to last or recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever (remember to speak to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication).
Bad toothaches are a good reason to see a dentist, but there are a few tips you can try if you’re waiting for your dental appointment.
- Use a cold compress. Put an ice pack or compress against the outside of your cheek (be sure to wrap it in a cloth to protect your skin). This can help numb any discomfort, but it might only be an option if you’re not experiencing lots of sensitivity to extreme temperatures.
- Stick to soft or liquid foods. Many types of dental pain can get worse when you put pressure on the offending tooth, so try eating soups, smoothies or soft foods like scrambled eggs.
- Consider pain relief medication. While keeping in mind any recommendations from your doctor or pharmacist, you could try over-the-counter pain relief medication (but be aware that aspirin tends not to be recommended as it may increase bleeding risk during dental treatment).
How to help lower your risk of a toothache
While you may not be able to eliminate all risk of any kind of dental pain, you can help lower risks by maintaining good oral hygiene and keeping your teeth and gums as healthy as possible. We recommend:
- brushing your teeth twice a day for 2 minutes with fluoride toothpaste
- flossing between your teeth once a day to remove trapped food and plaque
- cutting down on sugary food and drink or limit these to meal times
- having regular check-ups and professional cleans with your dentist.
Children can be at higher risk of tooth decay because their tooth enamel tends to be thinner and softer than that of adults. A dentist might recommend preventive dental treatments such as fissure sealants to help protect kids' teeth against plaque and tooth decay.
When playing sports, many dental groups recommend that people of all ages wear a custom-fitted mouthguard.1,2 This can help lower the risk of injuries to your teeth, mouth and jaws.
I have a toothache but I don’t how to pay for treatment
It’s not always easy to budget for unexpected problems. And feeling unsure of how to pay for an exam or a recommended treatment may make a painful situation even more stressful or uncomfortable.
That’s why many dentists offer payment plans and options to help you fund certain kinds of dental costs. Learn more about dental costs, insurance and public dental services in Australia.
Questions about pain or discomfort?
Not to sound like a broken record, but you really should consider speaking to a dentist if you’re experiencing dental pain that isn’t going away. Find a dental clinic near you.
1 American Dental Association. Mouth Guards. [Online] 2019 [Accessed July 2019]. Available from: www.ada.org
2 Australian Dental Association. Mouthguards. [Online] 2019 [Accessed July 2019]. Available from: www.ada.org.au
The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.