20 Signs Your Tooth Pain Is Signaling Something More Serious
You unwrap your favorite ice cream bar, savoring the last days of summer, and can already taste that creamy vanilla ice cream with the hard chocolate coating. You take that first bite, mouth watering, and…OUCH!
An intense, throbbing pain shoots through your molar—and throughout your entire body. Maybe you just banged your tooth. Maybe it’s something worse.
Occasional mouth pain may just indicate a sensitivity to hot or cold, which can become increasingly common as you get older. But different types of toothaches—and other symptoms associated with this pain—can be indicators that you’re developing one of several serious health conditions that need immediate treatment.
Don’t just pop an ibuprofen and assume it’ll go away. Read on to learn about 20 signs that indicate you need to take your tooth pain seriously. And to ensure your house is safe for you and the entire family, don’t miss this essential list of 100 Ways Your Home Could be Making You Sick.
It hurts when you chew
If your tooth sends a sharp, shooting pain when you take a bite of something, it may be cracked or damaged. If you don’t remember some kind of trauma—getting hit in the mouth, biting down on a Gobstopper—this crack may have occurred from grinding your teeth at night or clenching your jaw too intensely. Exposed nerves from a cracked tooth produce this pain and if left untreated, can cause the spread of bacteria and lead to an infection.
It might also hurt to chew because your tooth enamel has worn down. Tooth enamel protects your teeth’s nerves from outside factors that can cause pain. If the enamel wears down, you’ll notice increased sensitivity to hot or cold foods, which can cause that instant zing of pain when you chew. Depending on the pattern of your enamel disappearance, it may also be related to chronic acid reflux or a poor diet. According to a study published in the International Journal of Dentistry, dentists may be the first to diagnose gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) because they can spot these tooth erosion patterns.
Recommendation: A cracked tooth must be addressed immediately to prevent infection or decay. Visit your dentist so he or she can fix it. If you’re experiencing a loss of tooth enamel, you’ll need to examine your dietary habits and gastrointestinal health. There’s no way to get tooth enamel back once it’s gone, so the sooner you make healthy lifestyle changes, the less likely you are to experience pain when chewing in the future.
Your gums bleed when you floss
Bloody gums while flossing may be a sign of gum disease, a buildup of plaque and bacteria on the gums that causes your gums to recede from your teeth. According to the U.S. Department of Health And Human Services, most adults in the U.S. have some form of this disease but it’s more likely to occur in adults who are 30 to 40 years of age. In the most mild cases, it results in bloody and slightly receding gums. In severe cases, it can lead to tooth loss and decay.
Recommendation: Regularly brushing at least twice a day and flossing once a day (don’t lie to your dentist! She knows when you do!) can generally prevent gum disease. A professional deep clean once every six months can also keep this disease at bay. If your tooth pain is associated with bloody gums, visit your dentist. He or she may suggest additional oral health care, such as a daily mouthwash, or a procedure to save your teeth in severe cases.
You feel an intense throbbing pain
An intense, throbbing pain in your tooth that isn’t associated with eating may indicate you’re dealing with a tooth infection. A tooth infection occurs when bacteria invades the tooth’s pulp, which is the inner part of the tooth, where the connective tissue, nerves, and blood vessels are located. Infections are serious because they can spread to other parts of your body if left untreated. According to the Mayo Clinic, poor dental hygiene, dry mouth, or a diet that’s high in sugar can cause a tooth infection.
Recommendation: If you’re feeling an intense, throbbing pain in your tooth, make an emergency dentist appointment as soon as you can. Your dentist needs to treat the infection so it doesn’t spread, which may mean draining the abscess and prescribing antibiotics.
You feel pressure
If your tooth pain is associated with pressure, it may indicate that your wisdom teeth are giving you trouble. According to a study by Dr. Jay W. Friedman, DDS, MPH, 10 million wisdom teeth are extracted every year in the United States. Your wisdom teeth do most of their growing and changing when you’re 16 to 23 years of age.
If they seemed to grow normally throughout these years, your dentist at the time may have opted to let them stay in. However, when you get older, they can still begin to crowd your other teeth. If your wisdom teeth grew in at an angle, they’re more susceptible to infections or tooth decay, which can cause other problems in your mouth if they aren’t taken out.
Recommendation: Go see your dentist so he or she can take x-rays of your mouth and see what’s going on with your wisdom teeth. If they’re starting to crowd your other teeth or don’t look healthy, you may need to get them removed for your tooth pain and pressure to finally go away.
Your mouth is dry
Saliva protects you from bacteria and a dry mouth can exacerbate any problems you’re having with your teeth, since it allows bacteria to grow; the bacteria has a perfect environment to thrive in. Dry mouth can be caused by certain medications and can make it hard to spit, talk, or speak.
Recommendation: According to the National Institute on Aging, you should avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine because they can make your dry mouth worse. Practice regular brushing and flossing and try to keep your mouth salivated by sipping water or sucking on sugar-free hard candy. Visit your dentist immediately so he or can find the source of your tooth pain. Your dentist can also prescribe medications to counteract your dry mouth and keep your teeth healthy.
Your jaw or neck are swollen
If you recently underwent dental surgery, your jaw may swell a bit as you heal. However, if you haven’t had any work done recently and you notice a swelling of your jaw or neck in addition to your tooth pain, it can be a sign that you have a tooth abscess. Your tooth is infected and has caused a buildup of pus and bacteria, which has spread to your jaw or neck. The infection can also spread to other teeth, surrounding bones, and in severe cases, your ears or brain.
Recommendation: If your tooth pain is accompanied by jaw or neck swelling, you need to seek emergency dental treatment. An abscess never goes away on its own. Your dentist must provide treatment, which may involve a root canal or tooth extraction, and you may need to take antibiotics to stop the infection from spreading.
You notice a chip
Any tooth you have is susceptible to chipping, but according to a study published by the Journal of Endodontics, the lower second molar is the most frequently chipped tooth. This may be because it takes the most pressure when you chew or bite down. If you don’t address the chip in your tooth, you may suffer from extreme sensitivity to hot and cold foods and a toothache forever. A chipped tooth can indicate that your roots and nerves are exposed to the air, making your mouth extremely sensitive to anything it comes in contact with.
Recommendation: Visit your dentist as soon as you can for a treatment plan to fix your chipped tooth. He or she may suggest a crown, bonding, or a veneer to make your tooth whole again. Not only will this alleviate your tooth pain, it’ll also help improve your smile.
Your tooth feels loose
If you have tooth pain and the tooth itself feels loose, it’s a sign of advanced gum disease, also called periodontal disease. We already know how bad this disease is for your mouth and the trouble it can cause when it spreads, so it’s important to get it taken care of right away. A loose tooth can also occur if you have a cavity or tooth decay that you haven’t had treated.
Recommendation: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in every 5 adults who are aged 65 or older have lost all of their teeth. Don’t become a statistic! Visit your dentist so he or she can figure out if you have periodontal disease or cavities. The sooner you get treatment for the problem, the more likely it is your tooth can be saved.
Your jaw is sore or clicking
A jaw that’s consistently sore or that clicks when you open your mouth may indicate that you’re developing temporomandibular joint disorder, commonly referred to as TMJ. This disorder can occur if you clench or grind your teeth frequently. It may also be a result of arthritis or simply caused by genetics. According to the Mayo Clinic, in addition to a sore or clicking jaw, you may also feel:
- Pain around your ears.
- Difficulty chewing.
- Locking of the jaw, making it hard to open or close your mouth.
- Facial pain.
This condition can lead to the worsening of arthritis, jaw injury, or damage to the connective tissues around the jaw.
Recommendation: Make an appointment with a specialist if your jaw is sore, clicking, or generally causing you pain. He or she can provide you with strategies to combat or alleviate the symptoms of TMJ. He or she may also take an x-ray to understand the extent of your TMJ and surgery may be recommended if it’s severe.
The pain is dull and consistent
A constant and persistent toothache is not only annoying, it can also be a sign of something more serious. If your consistent pain is centralized to one area and accompanied by swollen or inflamed gums, it could indicate you have a foreign substance stuck in your gums. Try to floss thoroughly and see if you feel better.
If your dull pain is generalized throughout your entire mouth, it may mean you’re grinding your teeth at night. This can be dangerous because it can lead to chipped or broken teeth or the onset of TMJ.
Recommendation: Try to record when and where you feel this dull, consistent toothache. Visit your dentist so he or she can investigate further and provide you with the right treatment. Your dentist might find an infection or abscess that needs to be treated. If teeth grinding is to blame, he or she or may recommend wearing a nightguard.
Your gums look inflamed
Inflammation is an indicator that your body is fighting off bacteria and infection, and inflamed gums along with tooth pain are clear signs that you have gum disease. If your gums are swollen, your gum disease may already be severe and regular brushing and flossing just won’t cut it. According to a study published in the Journal of Periodontology, women who carried bacteria that’s known to cause periodontal disease were more likely to have more severe oral bone loss than women who didn’t carry these pathogens.
Recommendation: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, severe gum disease affects about 9% of adults and it can ruin your oral bones and gums, leading to tooth loss. It must be treated by a dentist, so you’ll need to make an appointment right away to seek treatment.
You’re sensitive to hot and cold
Mild sensitivity to hot and cold is normal for many people, especially as you age. However, intense, throbbing pain when biting into hot or cold food is something to be concerned about.
According to Dr. Mark S. Wolff, DDS, PhD, from Penn Dental Medicine, this sensitivity may be due to an exposure of the root structure in one or more of your teeth. This leaves the nerves of your teeth completely exposed, so it makes sense that hot or cold would trigger a painful reaction.
Recommendation: Be sure you aren’t brushing too hard and try to stay away from extremely hot or cold foods. Use a toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth and go see your dentist as soon as possible to see if you have exposed roots that can be fixed.
Your alignment has changed
Although they’re attached to your jawbone with a periodontal ligament and cementum, your teeth can move and shift in your mouth at any time. According to the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO), teeth generally move forward with age, but other factors can cause them to move faster.
A decrease in tooth enamel can affect the movement of your teeth, the alignment of your bite, and even the shape of your pearly whites. As your teeth move, change, and shift, they can create small spaces and crevices that are hard to reach with floss or a toothbrush. This makes it easy for bacteria to grow, which can cause gum disease and infection. Your tooth alignment change may be what’s causing your toothache to begin with.
Recommendation: If bacteria has caused tooth pain, your dentist will need to get involved. You may need an antibiotic and a deep cleaning to prevent the spread of the infection. If your alignment has changed drastically, you may need braces to prevent overcrowding or tooth damage.
Your teeth look flat and worn down
If you notice that your teeth look flat and worn down, you might be grinding them at night. This condition is also referred to as bruxism and according to the American Sleep Association, it affects 10% of adults and 15% of children. It can be caused by stress or genetics and usually decreases with age for most people.
You may not even realize you grind your teeth at night, but jaw or tooth pain, along with a flatter bite can be good indicators that you’re a nightly grinder. Bruxism can wear down your enamel, cause TMJ, and in some severe cases, it can even break your teeth.
Recommendation: Try to eliminate possible stressors from your life so you can get more restful sleep. You’ll also need to consult your dentist about teeth grinding. If he or she agrees with your diagnosis, you may be fitted for a custom mouthguard to wear at night. This will prevent your teeth from making contact and can save you from broken teeth, tooth pain, or a sore jaw.
You also have a fever
A fever along with tooth pain indicates an infection. If you notice pain in a centralized location, there may be a tooth or gum infection from a food particle or a buildup of bacteria and plaque. You may even be able to see a bump on an area of your gums. This is an abscess that’s filled with pus from the infection. In addition to your fever, you may also experience nausea and vomiting.
Recommendation: If your tooth pain is accompanied by a fever, your tooth infection is severe and you may need to seek emergency treatment. According to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP), over 900,000 emergency department visits and nearly 13,000 hospital inpatient stays in one year were related to dental conditions. Your abscess may need to be drained and you may need to be placed on antibiotics. You may also be required to visit your dentist for a root canal or to get your tooth pulled if it’s not salvageable.
You also see white sores in your mouth
If you notice white sores on your mouth or tongue, it may indicate a type of oral cancer. According to the National Institute on Aging, oral cancer is more common in people over the age of 40 but it’s always a good idea to have your dentist check at every exam. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported about 40,000 new cases of cancer of the oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers. Oral cancers are more common in those who smoke or drink heavily. If left untreated, oral cancer can spread to other parts of the body and be life threatening.
Recommendation: If you notice white spots or sores around your mouth, on your gums, or on your tongue, make an appointment with your doctor. In the meantime, avoid spicy foods, tobacco products, and alcohol. Your doctor will examine these areas and may need to biopsy them. If you’re diagnosed with oral cancer, you may need to get surgery to remove these cancerous cells. You may also need to undergo additional treatment, such as radiation or chemotherapy
It hurts when you eat sweets
If your toothache is only brought on by sugary foods, a weakening of your tooth enamel may be to blame. Our tooth enamel disappears as we age. But if you brush too intensely or with a hard-bristled toothbrush, you could be making your tooth enamel wear off prematurely. Without this enamel protecting your teeth, the sugar in sweet foods can make direct contact with the nerve endings in your teeth, causing you pain.
Recommendation: Ask your dentist about your sensitivity to all things sweet. You may need to use a toothbrush with softer bristles and you may need to adapt a more gentle brushing technique. Your dentist may also suggest toothpaste specifically designed for sensitive teeth to ensure the rest of your enamel stays isn’t threatened.
Your breath smells bad
If your tooth pain is accompanied by bad breath that won’t go away, it’s another indicator that you’re suffering from gum disease. When bacteria grows on your gum line and your gums begin to recede from your teeth, it can produce an unpleasant smell. Even if you don’t notice any changes in your gum line, your dentist can identify gum disease with a tiny ruler that measures small pockets in your gums.
While bad breath doesn’t seem like a threat to your health, gum disease and a mouth full of bacteria can increase your risk for serious health conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, poor oral health can be linked to an increased risk for:
- Endocarditis. Excessive mouth bacteria can cause an infection in the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves.
- Pregnancy and birth complications. Severe gum disease may be linked to low birth weight and premature birth.
- Cardiovascular disease. Some scientists believe there’s a link between gum disease and heart disease, stroke, or clogged arteries.
- Pneumonia. If certain mouth bacteria are pulled in your lungs, it can cause pneumonia or other respiratory conditions.
Recommendation: If you have chronic bad breath, visit your dentist for a thorough cleaning and x-rays. If gum disease is the culprit, you need to stick to a stricter oral health routine that includes regular flossing and brushing. Regular cleanings and checkups are also important to prevent gum disease from getting worse. Your dentist may be able to prescribe mouthwash or toothpaste designed to kill the bacteria causing your gum disease and bad breath.
It hurts when you suck in air
If you feel pain when you suck in air, it means your tooth enamel is worn away, which can be an indication that you have a cavity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90% of adults aged 20 to 64 years had at least one cavity. Cavities occur when plaque and tartar are left on your tooth enamel. As bacteria consume this plaque and tartar, acid is produced, which wears away at your tooth enamel and creates a tiny hole in your tooth.
This tiny hole can be the source of that sharp pain you feel as your suck in air or bite down on food. In some cases, however, you may not even feel pain when you have a cavity. If left untreated, cavities can lead to tooth decay or an infection.
Recommendation: Once you have a cavity, there’s no home remedy to get rid of it. You must visit your dentist so he or she can drill out the decay within the hole and replace it with a filling.
Your filling or crown is cracked
If the source of your tooth pain is a cracked or damaged filling or crown, don’t ignore it. While it may seem like an ailment that can wait, damage to your filling or crown can cause deeper, more serious issues. If your dental work is compromised, it leaves your teeth vulnerable to bacteria. When your crown is loose or your filling has been cracked, you simply can’t reach these small crevices with floss or your toothbrush, so bacteria continues to fester and multiply. Before you know it, your tooth can become infected, which can cause severe tooth pain and other problems.
Recommendation: If your filling has been cracked or damaged, your dentist may need to start over and replace it with a new one. If the tooth itself has damage, you may also need a crown to ensure there are no exposed cracks for bacteria to thrive. A loose crown may also need to be removed and replaced to ensure there’s solid contact between the tooth and the material.