What Cavity Pain Feels Like & What To Do

What Causes Cavity Pain in Teeth?

Tooth decay pain can happen at any time. Anyone who has experienced tooth decay pain understands how uncomfortable and stressful it can be. Fortunately, modern dentistry allows dentists to quickly treat and repair your tooth to get your oral health in optimal condition.

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 tooth decay, or dental caries, that include:

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  • 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 an 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, which eventually leads to sensitivity and pain. 

Tooth decay in the outer layer of your teeth, the enamel, may not cause any pain, but as the decay travels to the dentin layer or the pulp, it can lead to severe tooth pain.

The American Dental Association (ADA) reports that there are small, microscopic channels leading from the dentin later into the pulp layer. The inner layers of the tooth contain nerves of the teeth that provide sensation. It is important always to maintain routine dental checkups to evaluate for tooth decay early so you can get it treated promptly. 

Poor oral hygiene that leads to gum disease can be very painful and may feel like cavity pain. Gum disease, or periodontitis, can present with symptoms of red and inflamed gum lines, mobile teeth, and even a periodontal abscess. 

What Does Cavity Pain Feel Like?

Cavity pain is dependent upon the stage of tooth decay. Tooth decay in the enamel is likely asymptomatic and does not cause any sensitive teeth. Some people are unaware they even have tooth decay when it is so superficial. 

When tooth decay spreads to the dentin layer and pulp of the tooth, it can cause symptoms like:

  • Sensitivity to temperature changes
  • Throbbing pain when you bite down
  • Ear or sinus pain
  • Malodor (bad breath) 
  • Holes or spaces in teeth
  • Food getting caught between teeth where there is tooth decay
  • Gum pain or a dental abscess 

How to Stop Cavity Pain Temporarily (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. Salt rinse — Rinsing with warm salt water can help alleviate inflammation as it is antibacterial.
  2. Good oral home care — Brushing and flossing to help remove food and plaque debris that can irritate your cavities. Food caught in your cavities can lead to greater tooth sensitivity.
  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. 
  5. Cold compress — If you are experiencing a toothache, cold compresses can reduce pain by restricting blood vessels to decrease inflammation and swelling.
  6. Garlic or clove oil — Garlic and clove oil have been recognized for thousands of years as a natural remedy. It can help temporarily reduce pain and act as an antibacterial paste. 

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, but 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 and take a dental radiograph to determine the extent of the decay. Treatment can vary based on the extent of tooth decay. 

  • 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 goes untreated and 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. 

How Much Does a Cavity Restoration Cost?

Dental treatment costs vary and can become expensive without dental insurance. Remember that smaller treatments like dental fillings are less costly than more extensive dental work like root canal therapy, dental crowns, and extractions. 

A dental filling can cost anywhere from $75 to $350, depending on the amount of surface filling and filling you need. There are also additional costs to the filling like dental exams, x-rays, laughing gas if needed.

Cavity and Tooth Decay Complications

Cavities and tooth decay are common, so not everyone takes them seriously. However, cavities and tooth decay can have severe and lasting complications, even for children who do not have permanent teeth yet.

Complications of cavities may include:

  • Pain
  • Tooth abscess
  • Swelling or pus surrounding a tooth
  • Damage or broken teeth
  • Chewing issues
  • Positioning shifts of teeth following tooth loss

When cavities and tooth decay become severe, you may experience:

  • Pain that affects daily living
  • Weight loss or nutrition issues from painful or difficult eating or chewing
  • Tooth loss, which may affect your appearance, confidence, and self-esteem
  • In rare cases, a tooth abscess

When is Cavity Pain a Dental Emergency? 

Fortunately, most of the time, tooth decay can be managed at home until your dental visit. However, if you are experiencing severe pain that cannot be relieved, this may be considered a dental emergency. 

Severe pain can sometimes indicate you have a dental infection that needs to be addressed immediately. If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should contact your dentist to seek medical advice:

  • Facial swelling — Facial swelling, or cellulitis, can be medically harmful. It can lead to a systemic infection that affects your overall health and, in rare cases, can lead to death if left untreated.
  • Abscessed tooth — If you notice yellow pus or swelling around your teeth, this may indicate you have a gum or tooth infection.


Dealing With Tooth Pain, The Journal of American Dental Association

Quickly and Easily Temporizing A Broken Tooth, The Journal of American Dental Association

Koh, Sky Wei Chee et al. “Managing tooth pain in general practice.” Singapore medical journal vol. 60,5 (2019): 224-228

Timmerman, Aovana, and Peter Parashos. “Management of dental pain in primary care.” Australian prescriber vol. 43,2 (2020): 39-44

InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Tooth decay: Overview. [Updated 2020 Feb 27]

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 (2016): 31-33.

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