Dental pain


Few pains nag away at you like toothache. This is because the mouth is packed with nerves so you're likely to feel every little twinge. As there are many causes of dental pain, it can be tricky to know why it's happening.

What causes toothache?

Some of the most common causes of toothache are:

Tooth decay

The pain is usually sharp, and can be persistent (always there) or intermittent (flaring up occasionally). However, tooth decay is not always painful, which is why it's important to see your dentist at least twice a year so they can check for it.

A dental abscess

The mouth is full of bacteria that generally does no harm until an abscess occurs. The pain is usually intense and throbbing.

A cracked or damaged tooth, a loose filling and gum recession

All these can cause sensitivity to pressure, and sweet or cold food and drink.


Pain from infected sinuses sometimes affects the teeth in your sleep. This overworks the jaw muscles, which can become inflamed and cause toothache-like pain.

Impacted wisdom teeth

Because they're the last teeth to arrive, and sit at the back of the mouth, they can grow at an angle, which can cause serious pain. If this is the case for you, consult your dentist immediately.

What are the treatment options?

Painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol will usually help with mild pain. Aspirin is another option, but it is not suitable for children under 16.

If mild pain persists for more than two days, make an appointment to see your dentist, so they can diagnose the problem and treat it before it becomes more serious. Left untreated, dental pain can become severe. If your pain is not relieved by painkillers or if you have any of the following symptoms, you should see your dentist as soon as possible.

• Swollen cheeks or jaw

• The pain is accompanied by a high temperature

• Pain when biting

• Reddened gums

If you are sure of the cause of your pain – if your wisdom teeth are coming through, for example – then rubbing a pain-relieving gel on the area might bring temporary relief. If your pain becomes severe, make an emergency appointment with your dentist.

The strongest non-prescription painkiller is co-codamol. This is a combination of paracetamol and codeine, which is an opioid. It's available from a pharmacy. If you're unsure whether to take this, speak with your pharmacist. Because of their addictive nature, opioids should not be taken for more than three days at a time unless you're otherwise directed by your doctor.

If you experience any of the following symptoms alongside toothache, you should go to your nearest Accident and Emergency department:

• Swelling around the eyes or neck

• Difficulty breathing, speaking or swallowing due to swelling 

How can I help prevent dental pain?

Following a good oral hygiene regime can minimise dental pain from tooth decay. You should also be scheduling regular dental check-ups.

Regular brushing and flossing are important, as is promptly replacing old toothbrushes or brush-heads. Brushing or scraping the tongue also helps prevent bacteria build-up, as do mouthwashes.

Avoid brushing your teeth too vigorously. This can wear away the gums and cause sensitivity problems. If you find this difficult, you can buy a soft-bristled brush to help you to brush more gently.

Preventing teeth from unnecessary cracking and chipping is another way to dodge dental discomfort. Avoid using your teeth as a tool or for opening things, and wear a gum shield when playing contact sports, such as rugby and hockey. A gum shield worn at night will also guard against teeth grinding.

A healthy diet is another effective guard against many dental problems. Overindulging in sugary foods and drinks cause rapid plaque build-up, making tooth decay more likely. Quitting smoking will also improve oral hygiene.

Next steps

• Maintain good oral hygiene and have dental check-ups twice a year

• Consider paracetamol or Non-Steriodal Anti Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) for mild to moderate pain

• Make an immediate appointment with your dentist if the pain is severe or if you're concerned