A toothache is generally the result of dental cavities (tooth decay) or sometimes an infection. Tooth decay is often caused by poor dental hygiene, although the tendency to get tooth decay is partly inherited.
Sometimes, pain that's felt in the tooth is actually due to pain in other parts of the body. This is called referred pain or radiating pain. For example, an earache may sometimes cause tooth pain.
Over-the-counter pain medications may be used while waiting to see the dentist or primary health care provider.
For toothaches caused by a tooth abscess, the dentist may recommend antibiotic therapy and other treatments, like root canal.
To prevent tooth decay, use good oral hygiene. A low sugar diet is recommended along with regular flossing, brushing with fluoride toothpaste, and regular professional cleaning. Sealants and fluoride applications by the dentist are important for preventing tooth decay.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Seek medical care if:
You have a severe toothache
You have a toothache that lasts longer than a day or two
You have fever, earache, or pain upon opening the mouth wide
Note: The dentist is an appropriate person to see for most causes of toothaches. However, if the problem is referred pain from another location, you may need to see your primary health care provider.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The dentist will examine you. The physical examination may include an examination of the mouth, teeth, gums, tongue, throat, ears, nose, and neck. You may need dental x-rays. The dentist may recommend other tests, depending on the suspected cause.
The dentist will ask questions about your medical history and symptoms, including:
When did the pain start?
How severe is the pain?
Where is the pain located?
Does it involve the jaw or ears?
Does it radiate to other parts of the body, such as the neck, shoulder, or arm?
What makes it worse?
Is it worse after cold foods or liquids?
Is it worse after sweet foods or liquids?
Is it worse after chewing?
Is it worse after drinking?
Is it worse when you touch the area?
Is it worse after physical exertion?
Does the pain wake you up at night?
What makes it better?
Is it better after you use medications? (Which ones?)
Treatment may involve fillings, tooth removal, or a root canal, if the problem is severe. If there is a fever or swelling of the jaw, an antibiotic will usually be prescribed.
Paul Fotek, DMD, Florida Institute for Periodontics & Dental lmplants, West Palm Beach, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.