Toothache is not only uncomfortable, but it can stop you from being able to eat, sleep, and concentrate on everyday tasks. In this blog, we will look at the possible causes for your tooth pain and the best way to treat it.

Possible dental causes

The middle of your tooth contains something called pulp, which is made up of nerves, tissue, and blood vessels. Infection or inflammation of the pulp is known as pulpitis, which leads to tooth pain.

The number one cause of pulpitis is tooth decay¹, followed closely by injury. In fact, tooth decay is a rising problem in the UK, particularly among children.

Tooth decay/cavity

Tooth decay is caused by a build-up of plaque – a sticky film containing bacteria, that sticks to your teeth and makes them feel fuzzy. Certain types of food like those containing sugar, react with the bacteria in plaque to produce acid. The acid attacks the tooth and wears away at its hard, protective coating (enamel).

Too many of these acid attacks can cause cavities, also known as dental caries. A cavity is a small hole in the tooth, which allows bacteria to enter the pulp and cause an infection (pulpitis). Left untreated, it can lead to a painful tooth abscess.

Tooth damage

Damage to the tooth can expose the delicate layers inside and create an opening for food, water, air, and bacteria to get in. This might be because of:

  • a broken or cracked tooth
  • a damaged filling
  • a loose crown (dental cap)

A tooth fracture might occur suddenly after an injury or develop slowly over time.

Gum disease

Gum disease – known as gingivitis in the early stages – is caused by a build-up of plaque along the gum line. Typical symptoms of gingivitis include tooth pain, red and swollen gums, and bleeding after brushing or flossing.

Left untreated, gum disease can spread to the tissue and bones that hold the teeth in place (periodontal disease). This is the leading cause of tooth loss in adults², and is usually due to poor oral hygiene, such as a lack of brushing.

Other causes (non-dental)

Tooth pain can also be caused by things that don’t appear to be related, such as:

  • cluster headaches
  • infection in the sinus cavities
  • heart disease such as angina
  • viral infections like shingles
  • trigeminal neuralgia
  • vitamin B12 deficiency

Though you may not realise it, your teeth and jaw are connected to different parts of the body, and when you feel pain in this general area, it can be hard to pinpoint. You could be left wondering whether the problem is in your upper teeth, lower teeth, or jaw. If you are worried about your symptoms, seek advice from your GP.

Dental treatment for tooth pain

If you have an infection, then your dentist will prescribe antibiotics first to deal with this, before tackling the cause of the problem. If tooth decay is behind your infection, then they may suggest cleaning your teeth to remove plaque and filing any cavities.

Any damage to your tooth that is causing pain, will need to be fixed. This might involve replacing – or repairing – a filling or crown. A broken tooth, or one that is cracked or split, may need fixing with dental glue or a veneer fitting.

Family brushing teeth

In the case of gum disease, you may need several treatments. Your dentist may recommend an at-home treatment like a medicated mouthwash, or a scaling and root planing with a dental hygienist to remove plaque below the gum line.

If the infection has spread to the root of the tooth, then you may need a root canal to remove the bacteria.

At-home remedies

There are things you can do at home to relieve the symptoms of tooth pain, such as:

  • taking pain relief medication
  • rinsing your mouth with warm salt water
  • gently flossing to remove any food
  • using a cold compress on your jaw
  • using a numbing gel or clove oil

Establishing a good oral health routine is the best way of preventing dental pain.

How to prevent toothache

To prevent toothache, you should brush your teeth at least twice a day with a toothpaste that contains fluoride, and regularly floss to reach the areas your toothbrush can’t.

Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally in water and is proven to prevent tooth decay. If you have early-stage tooth decay, your dentist may prescribe you with a toothpaste that contains high levels of fluoride, such as Colgate Duraphat 5000.

This prescription-only toothpaste contains 5000ppm (parts per million) of fluoride to remove plaque, strengthen tooth enamel, and alleviate the symptoms of sensitive teeth.

You can buy Colgate Duraphat directly from pharmacies in store and online.

Regular dental check-ups and a healthy balanced diet are both important for maintaining a healthy smile. Smokers who quit, or cut down, will also notice an improvement in their oral health.

Seeking help from a dentist

This blog asked the question, what are the possible causes of a slight tooth pain? Though we’ve covered some of the most likely causes, toothache often requires further investigation by a dentist. Find a dentist near you on the NHS website.

Although all of our content is written and reviewed by healthcare professionals, it should not be substituted for or used as medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please speak to your doctor.

Authored Aug 10, 2021 by Joseph Issac, MPharm
Reviewed Aug 16, 2021 by Prabjeet Saundh, MPharm