Toothache

Also called tooth pain or dental pain

Toothache is a common condition that can be very painful. It's useful to know what might be causing your toothache and when you should see your dentist.

Key points about toothache

  1. Toothache can affect your biting, chewing and sleeping.
  2. There are different types and causes of toothache. Every person's experience of toothache is different, which can make it hard to know what is causing the pain.
  3. See your dentist if your toothache lasts more than 2 days or if it doesn't go away when you take pain medication, or if you have signs of fever or infection.
  4. Your GP won't be able to give you dental treatment but may be able to help with pain relief if you can’t get to a dentist. In some parts of the country, your GP might be able to refer you for publicly funded dental care if you qualify as low income. 

What are the symptoms of toothache?

The symptoms of toothache are often confusing. It can be difficult to decide which tooth is causing the pain or even whether it's coming from an upper or lower tooth. Sometimes the pain can feel like it is coming from a distant site, such as your ear.

Common symptoms of toothache are pain in and around the tooth or sensitive teeth. Read more about describing your pain.  

Toothache symptoms and possible problems

The following is a list of common toothache symptoms and possible problems.

Sensitivity: Sensitivity is a sharp, intense shooting pain that goes deep into your tooth. It is commonly triggered by hot, cold, sweet or acidic food or drinks. The pain can last a few minutes or even hours, while for some people it passes in a few seconds. The longer pain lasts the more likely a serious problem exists, so any pain that last more than a few seconds should be checked by your dentist as soon as possible. Read more about sensitive teeth.   
Sharp pain when biting down on food: This pain is commonly caused by tooth decay, a loose filling or a crack in your tooth. It’s also possible there is damage to the inside of your tooth. This should be checked by your dentist as soon as possible.
Pain together with gum swelling and sensitivity to touch: This may be caused by an abscess, which is a pocket of pus that forms around the root of an infected tooth. Get help as soon as possible, as abscesses don't go away on their own.   
Dull ache and pressure in the upper teeth and jaw: This may be caused by a chronic infection or by grinding your teeth (known as bruxism). Most people who grind their teeth and clench their jaw are not aware they're doing it. It often happens during sleep, while concentrating or when under stress. Talk to your dentist if you have these symptoms.

Note: This is not a complete list.

When should I see my dentist?

See your dentist if:

  • you have any kind of toothache, especially if it lasts more than 2 days
  • the toothache doesn't go away when you take pain medication
  • if you also have a high temperature and pain when you bite, or your cheek or jaw are swollen.  

Pain relief for toothache

While you are waiting for an appointment with your dentist you can take pain medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Your pharmacist can advise you on suitable pain relief for you.

Clove oil or chewing a whole clove is a natural remedy that can be effective for temporary relief of some toothaches. You can also try rinsing your mouth with saltwater. Some people find putting an ice pack on their cheek offers some relief. For sensitivity pain, some desensitising toothpastes can be effective. 

Lying down can increase toothache, whereas sitting, standing or having your head raised can help by reducing pressure on the area. If your toothache is affecting your sleep, try propping your head up with an extra pillow or two.

Also, avoid pain triggers, such as hot or cold foods.

How can I prevent toothache?

The best way to prevent toothache is to keep your teeth and gums as healthy as possible.

  • Have regular dental check-ups.
  • Have sugary foods and drinks only as an occasional treat at mealtimes.
  • Brush your teeth twice a day for about 2 minutes with a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Clean between your teeth using floss or an interdental brush every day to remove food, debris and plaque.

What if I can't afford to see a dentist?

Children in New Zealand who meet the eligibility criteria for publicly funded health and disability services are entitled to free basic oral health services from birth until their 18th birthday. 

A limited range of dental services are funded for some adults.

  • People with disabilities or medical conditions such as mouth cancer may be referred to a hospital for their dental treatment by their usual dental practitioner or GP.
  • People on low incomes who have a Community Services Card may be able to get emergency dental care, such as pain relief or extractions.

If you have a low income or benefit, you may be able to access a Work and Income grant towards the cost of dental treatment. You may have to pay some of the money back depending on your situation.

Learn more

Find a dentist in your area Healthpoint, NZ
Find a registered oral health practitioner Dental Council, NZ
Emergency dental care in New Zealand Ministry of Health, NZ 
Publicly funded dental care Ministry of Health, NZ

References

  1. Toothache NHS, UK, 2018
  2. Tooth pain American Association of Endodontists, US

Reviewed by

Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent is an Associate Professor in Dental Public Health, Department of Oral Sciences, University of Otago. He is a dental public health specialist.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Jonathan Broadbent, dental public health specialist Last reviewed: 16 Apr 2020