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What Causes Cavity Pain in Teeth?

Anyone who has experienced tooth decay pain understands how uncomfortable and stressful it can be. Fortunately, modern dentistry allows dentists to act quickly and restore your oral health to optimal condition.

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Tooth decay is common but preventable since most cases are caused by a combination of poor dental hygiene and frequent consumption of sugar and carbohydrates.

However, other causes increase your risk for cavities, including:

  • Eating disorders — Frequent vomiting leads to stomach acid in the mouth that can break down tooth enamel.
  • Reflux — Those with GI issues are more frequent to have tooth decay because the acid can lead to the breakdown of enamel.
  • Medications — If you take daily medication that causes dry mouth, this may lead to a decrease in saliva, a buffer against cavities. 

The process of tooth decay begins when plaque bacteria use food debris left behind on your teeth to create acid. The acid weakens tooth enamel and leads to a small hole in your tooth called a cavity.

The longer tooth decay is left untreated, the easier it can spread to the inner layers of the tooth. This is what eventually leads to sensitivity and pain.

How to Stop Cavity Pain Temporarily (7 Home Remedies) 

You can temporarily manage your tooth decay at home if you cannot get an immediate dental appointment. Remember that even if your symptoms subside, you should always follow up with your dentist for professional treatment. 

1. Rinse with warm saltwater

Rinsing with warm salt water can help alleviate inflammation as it is antibacterial. Take a teaspoon of salt and stir it into an 8 ounce glass of warm water. Swish the solution around in your mouth.

2. Good oral home care

Brushing and can help remove food and plaque debris that can irritate your cavities. Use an antisensitivity toothpaste and brush carefully to block off the dentinal tubules. Flossing can help get food out from hard-to-reach places.

3. Hydrogen peroxide rinse

A hydrogen peroxide mouthwash can reduce pain symptoms by reducing inflammation. Always dilute the rinse and never swallow it. 

4. Over-the-counter pain medication

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be taken as needed for pain relief until you get an appointment with your dentist. Be sure to check with your doctor if they're okay for you to use.

5. Cold compress

If you are experiencing a toothache, cold compresses can reduce pain by restricting blood vessels to decrease inflammation and swelling. Keep the cold cloth on the side of your face with the toothache for several minutes. Repeat as needed.

6. Clove oil

Clove oil has been recognized for thousands of years as a natural remedy. It can help temporarily reduce pain and act as an antibacterial paste. 

Dip a cotton swab in clove oil and wipe over the site of the toothache until it fades.

7. Garlic

As with clove oil, garlic has also long been recognized for its medicinal properties. Take a clove and gently chew it with the affected tooth. Let the clove then rest over the tooth.

What Does a Cavity Feel Like?

Because there are no nerves in the enamel, cavities aren't painful when just beginning. Many people are unaware they even have tooth decay at this point. 

This changes as the decay spreads to the dentin layer and pulp of the tooth. The dentin contains tubules that transmit sensation to the pulp, which is where the nerves are located.

Symptoms at this stage include:

  • Severe pain
  • Toothache
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Throbbing pain when you bite down
  • Ear or sinus pain
  • Bad breath
  • Holes or spaces in teeth
  • Food getting caught between teeth where there is tooth decay
  • Gum pain or a dental abscess 

If the severe pain in your tooth stops at some point, that may be an indication you have a dead tooth. A dead tooth can lead to severe complications if left untreated.

How Long Can You Leave a Cavity Untreated?

You should attempt to get your cavities treated quickly when they are detected by your dentist. Even with the best oral care, most cavities cannot repair themselves without the assistance of a filling. This is to avoid long-term dental problems that can be more painful and financially costly.

Smaller fillings may take a few months to progress and cause a problem. Untreated tooth decay left for several months can spread to adjacent teeth and lead to extensive dental treatment. Leaving a cavity untreated can lead to a dental infection and even tooth loss.

How Do Dentists Treat Cavity Pain?

If you have tooth decay that is causing pain, your dentist will perform a thorough clinical examination. They may also take a dental radiograph to determine the extent of the decay. Treatment can vary based on the severity of the cavity.

Dental filling

Tooth decay in the enamel or dentin will need a composite resin or silver amalgam filling to repair the tooth.

Dental crown

If tooth decay spreads to a greater portion of the tooth, a core buildup and crown may be recommended to help support the tooth.

Root canal therapy

When tooth decay spreads to the pulp of the tooth, you will need a root canal to save your tooth and get you out of pain. You will also need a dental crown following the root canal to restore the tooth.

Tooth extraction

If the decay is so severe that your tooth cannot be restored, an extraction may be recommended to prevent pain and infection. A dental implant is recommended to replace the missing tooth. 

Cavity and Tooth Decay Complications

Cavities and tooth decay can have severe and lasting complications if left untreated.

Some of these complications include:

  • Damage or broken teeth
  • Chewing issues
  • Weight loss or nutrition issues from painful or difficult eating or chewing
  • Tooth loss, which may affect your appearance, confidence, and self-esteem

Two of the most severe complications of tooth decay are tooth abscess and cellulitis.

An abscessed tooth will have yellow pus and swelling around it. This is a sign you have an infection in your teeth and gums.

This infection can spread elsewhere in the body, leading to sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection. It can also cause meningitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Cellulitis, or facial swelling, can be medically harmful. It can lead to a systemic infection that affects your overall health and, in rare cases, death, if left untreated.

Last updated on April 3, 2022
6 Sources Cited
Last updated on April 3, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Dealing With Tooth Pain, The Journal of American Dental Association
  2. Quickly and Easily Temporizing A Broken Tooth, The Journal of American Dental Association
  3. Koh, Sky Wei Chee et al. “Managing tooth pain in general practice.” Singapore medical journal vol. 60,5 : 224-228
  4. Timmerman, Aovana, and Peter Parashos. “Management of dental pain in primary care.” Australian prescriber vol. 43,2 : 39-44
  5. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Tooth decay: Overview. [Updated 2020 Feb 27]
  6. Heng, Christine. “Tooth Decay Is the Most Prevalent Disease.” Federal practitioner : for the health care professionals of the VA, DoD, and PHS vol. 33,10 : 31-33.
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