Beyond cavities

Toothache: Symptoms, causes and treatments | 5 min read

Experiencing a toothache can be an uncomfortable and worrying situation. Often, we might conclude that a cavity is to blame. However, toothaches can stem from various issues, not just cavities. Understanding the potential causes and distinguishing between general toothaches and cavities can help you decide the best action.

Toothache: Symptoms, causes and treatments

Toothaches can range from mild discomfort to severe pain, disrupting daily life and signalling that something isn’t quite right with your dental health. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain: The most common symptom of a toothache is pain, which can be sharp and sudden or dull and constant. Eating or drinking something hot, cold, or sweet might worsen.
  • Swelling: Swelling around the tooth and in your face may occur.
  • Bleeding: There might be bleeding or discharge from around a tooth or gums.
  • Fever or headache: A toothache can sometimes be accompanied by a fever, headache or both.
  • Foul taste: An infection in the tooth may cause a bad taste or bad breath.

A toothache can arise from several conditions, from dental decay (cavities) to an impacted tooth. Even habits like grinding or clenching teeth can lead to a toothache. However, consulting a dentist for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is crucial. Some of the causes include:

  • Tooth decay: This is the most common cause, where plaque—a sticky film of bacteria – produces acids that attack the tooth enamel. A cavity is essentially tooth decay that has created a hole in your tooth. When decay reaches the inner layers of a tooth, it can cause sudden and worsening toothaches. Sensitivity to hot, cold, or sugary foods may also indicate decay. 

Read more about baby cavities

  • Gum disease: What often feels like tooth pain is a gum issue. Gum disease can cause the gums to pull away from the teeth, leaving deep pockets that harbour bacteria and cause pain. Gum diseases, such as gingivitis and periodontitis, are inflammatory responses to bacterial plaque accumulation. Gingivitis involves inflammation, redness, and bleeding of the gums, while periodontitis also affects the supporting bone tissue, potentially leading to tooth loss. 
  • Tooth sensitivity: This is a sharp, short-duration pain triggered by hot, cold, sweet, or very acidic foods and drinks. Causes include excessive brushing, using hard-bristled toothbrushes, gum retraction, tooth loss, bruxism (teeth grinding), and consuming acidic foods or beverages. 
  • Tooth fractures: Causes cracks or breaks in the teeth that expose sensitive inner layers. A tooth can fracture from biting hard foods or facial trauma, leading to throbbing pain. Fractured teeth require dental treatment.
  • Dental infections: Infections at the root of a tooth or between the gum and a tooth. Tooth Infections result when bacteria infect the tooth’s pulp (containing blood vessels and nerves). This can happen from severe decay reaching the pulp, trauma, a damaged filling, or severe gum disease.
  • Damaged fillings: Fillings that have become damaged or fallen out expose sensitive parts of the tooth.

How to know when you need a tooth filling

  • Sinus infections: Pressure from sinus infections can cause tooth pain. The maxillary sinus cavity, positioned behind the cheekbones, has a thin bone layer with an opening connected to the roots of the upper molars and premolars. Infections or inflammation in this area can cause pain in both teeth and sinuses.
  • Teeth grinding (bruxism): Many people unconsciously clench their jaws and grind their teeth, often due to stress or while sleeping. This can cause tooth wear and lead to muscle and headache pain due to the constant contraction of facial muscles.

Treatment options for a toothache depend on the cause and the severity of the decay and can range from:

  • Dental procedures: Fillings, crowns, root canals, or extractions are common treatments for decay or damage.
  • Antibiotics: If an infection causes the toothache, antibiotics may be prescribed to clear it up.
  • Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers can temporarily alleviate pain, but it’s important to follow up with a dentist to address the root cause.

When to see a dentist

The time a cavity can go untreated varies; however, it will continue to grow if not addressed. Eventually, it can lead to more severe issues like dental abscesses or even tooth loss. While early-stage tooth decay can sometimes be halted or reversed with fluoride treatments and improved dental hygiene, it requires professional dental treatment to repair once a cavity has formed. Treatment options depend on the severity of the decay and can range from fillings for small cavities to root canals for more severe decay that has reached the tooth’s inner pulp.

Healthy habits your dentist wishes you would follow

Whether you suspect a cavity or are experiencing a toothache for another reason, it’s essential to see a dentist when:

– Pain is severe or lasts more than 1 to 2 days

– There is swelling in the mouth or face

– You experience fever, earache, or pain upon opening your mouth wide

Prevention is key to avoiding toothaches. Regular dental check-ups, good oral hygiene practices like brushing and flossing daily, and avoiding sugary foods and drinks can help maintain dental health and prevent issues that lead to toothaches.

Read more: The power of dental check-ups

In summary, while toothaches and cavities are common concerns, understanding their causes, symptoms, and treatments can empower you to take the right steps towards oral health. When in doubt, consult your dentist for advice tailored to your situation.

Book a consultation with your dentist online


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