Ouch! You’re eating breakfast, and your tooth hurts. Could you have a cavity? Should you call your dentist? Toothaches are common ailments that occur due to a variety of issues, only one of which may be a cavity.
Toothaches from Cavities
A cavity is formed when acid-producing bacteria eat away a tooth’s enamel and gain access to the dentin inside the tooth. Dentin is the hard, dense, boney tissue under enamel and makes up most of what a tooth is. Dentin is mostly made of hydroxylapatite, a calcium-based mineral, and has nerve endings in it. Because dentin is sponge-like, bacteria thrive in it once they gain access.
It’s important to remember that teeth aren’t simply solid pieces of enamel. Enamel only covers the outside. Inside, teeth are as much alive as every other part of our bodies. So, like the rest of the body, a tooth will respond to a bacterial infection by becoming inflamed. But unlike other areas of the body where inflamed tissues can expand, inflammation in a tooth is contained within the walls of the enamel, so you can easily understand why an infected tooth hurts so much.
Other Causes of a Toothache
Cavities aren’t the only cause for a toothache. Toothaches can be caused by:
- Dental decay
- Gum disease
- Excessive plaque
- Food that’s stuck between teeth
- Grinding or clenching teeth
- Heart problems
- Improperly placed crowns or fillings
- Injury to teeth
- Injury or pain in the jaws, ears, nerves, or muscles around the face
- Sinus infections
When to Call a Dentist
Although many issues can trigger tooth pain, a toothache isn’t something to ignore. You’ll want to contact your dentist for an emergency visit or go to the emergency room if you’re experiencing fever, swelling in your jaw, if your eyes are swelling shut, if you’re having trouble breathing or swallowing, or if pain persists for more than a day or two, as these symptoms may indicate an infection.
Other indicators of an infection include severe pain that lasts longer than 15 seconds after you apply pressure to the tooth, severe pain due to temperature change, bleeding, and when over-the-counter medicines don’t relieve the pain.
Relieving a Toothache
If your toothache doesn’t constitute an emergency and you can’t see the dentist right away, there are some things you can do to relieve the pain.
The key to best deal with a toothache is to relieve the inflammation, which will help control the pain. Advil can help reduce inflammation, but you must take it regularly according to the instructions.
Natural ways to control inflammation include:
- Salt rinse: Rinse with a briny solution four to five days daily.
- Clove oil: Apply this essential oil to the affected area. The Journal of Dentistry reports clove oil relieves pain as well as benzocaine (an ingredient common in topical pain relievers).
- Keeping your head elevated at all times.
- Keeping the area cold with frozen peas or a water-ice mixture wrapped in a thin towel. Keep the icy mixture off the skin.