Cavities, also called dental caries by dentists, are signs of damage to the tooth. They can range in size from small enough to large enough to break teeth.
In 2011–2012, there were cavities in 91 percent of adults in the United States, but many did not know it. This is because usually, cavities don’t hurt until they get far enough into the tooth to damage the nerve below.
In this post, learn more about cavity pain, and how to get relief.
Pain in the cavities will range from mild to intolerable. When a cavity eats away at a tooth’s enamel, a person may find it more sensitive, especially when brushing the teeth or drinking hot or cold drinks.
Cavities causing further damage to the tooth can impact the nerve and cause intense pain.
Cavities can sometimes grow so large that bacteria can get into the gums, or even the bone under the teeth. This can cause intense, constant pain, and severe infections.
Some symptoms a person can experience when he or she has a mild to moderate cavity include:
- tooth sensitivity, which may feel like a stinging or burning sensation
- occasional toothaches that go away with pain medication
- sensitivity on one side of the mouth, especially when chewing hard foods
- discoloration of the teeth, such as yellow, white, or brown spots
When a cavity grows very large or causes a tooth abscess, some symptoms may include:
- intense pain that may affect just a single tooth
- a vague but unrelenting ache
- pain that ranges from throbbing and stinging to pounding or burning
- swelling in the gums or face
- a fever
- pain in the jaw, ears, or gums
- tooth pain severe enough to interfere with sleeping or daily activities
Sometimes, when the infection destroys the tooth’s nerve or pulp, an abscessed tooth stops hurting for a while.
However, one person may still have other symptoms, such as swelling, and if the infection hits the gums or bone, the pain may return.
On the teeth live bacteria which eat sugar. If they eat a very sugar diet, do not brush their teeth, or do not receive regular dental treatment, a person is likely to have more bacteria in their mouth.
Over time, these bacteria can eat into the teeth’s enamel, eventually causing deterioration deep within the tooth.
These bacteria form plaque-causing biofilms which make them harder to remove. Over time, the bacteria damage the tooth’s delicate pulp and nerve and cause pain in the cavity.
Many factors, including their individual microbiome, may affect a person’s susceptibility to cavities. The microbiome is the special colony of bacteria and other microoranisms in an individual that can either help or hinder the production of harmful bacteria in the mouth.
Research also indicates infectious bacteria are the ones that cause cavities. By kissing them, sharing food or drinks with them, or sneezing on or near them, a person can transfer cavity-causing bacteria to another person.
How to get immediate relief
Some strategies that can help with cavity pain include:
- Applying numbing gels: Some over-the-counter (OTC) gels can temporarily soothe tooth pain.
- Trying warm saltwater rinses: Warm salt water can help kill bacteria and may temporarily ease pain.
- Trying clove oil: Clove oil may help ease dental pain. Some dental numbing gels use clove oil.
- Taking OTC pain medications: Pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help soothe painful symptoms.
- Trying cold or heat therapy: A person can try applying a cold or hot pack to the outside of their mouth. Alternating these therapies may also help.
- Ensuring better oral care: Brushing or flossing can remove some of the plaque. This will not cure the cavity, but it can reduce the rate at which bacteria eat into the tooth, potentially preventing the pain from getting worse.
Tooth decay severe enough to cause discomfort warrants a trip to the dentist.
In some cases there may be a source of non-cavity, such as an inflammation of the sinus or temporomandibular joint problems.
However, only a dentist can diagnose the cause, so it is important that timely care is sought to prevent the problem from becoming worse.
Treatment depends on how deep the cavity is and where it’s in the mouth. Some care options could include:
- Dental fillings: A dentist will drill out the cavity and then fill it with a safe substance to keep out bacteria.
- Root canals: Root canals can save a dying tooth.
- Crowns: A crown removes the outer layer of the tooth, eliminates the decay, and then uses a permanent cap to cover the entire tooth.
- Antibiotics: When a person has a serious dental infection, they may need antibiotics. People with weakened immune systems, those with a history of organ transplants, and those undergoing chemotherapy may also require antibiotics.
- Orthodontic care: Sometimes, crowded teeth or problems with the bite can increase the risk of cavities. Seeking orthodontic care, such as braces, may help.
When to see a dentist
A person should schedule an appointment with a dentist for any tooth or mouth pain. If the pain is intense or unbearable, they may wish to contact an emergency dentist.
A person may need emergency care if they cannot get an appointment within the next 24 hours and have any of the following symptoms:
- a fever
- physical sickness
- a headache
- swelling in the face or around the mouth
- swelling behind the ears
- pain so severe that it makes sleeping impossible
A individual should seek urgent care for these symptoms because they might indicate the infection has spread to another area of the body.
Although pain in the cavity may be serious, it is highly treatable. A dentist can usually relieve the pain within a couple of hours, either by treating the root cause or by providing pain relief although awaiting further care.
A person may also try home remedies before seeing a dentist to ease the pain.
Cavities can very rarely cause serious health issues like widespread infections.
While alarm at the first sign of a cavity does not need to occur, avoiding dental care can compromise overall health.