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Toothache and Gum Problems

Topic Overview

Toothaches and gum problems are common but usually can be prevented by taking good care of your teeth and gums. Keeping your teeth, gums, and the bones around your teeth healthy requires regular brushing, flossing, and good nutrition. Brush your teeth twice a day with an American Dental Association (ADA) accepted fluoride toothpaste. Clean between teeth daily with floss or an interdental cleaner. For more information on proper brushing and flossing techniques, see the topic Basic Dental Care.

Toothaches

Sometimes you may have tooth pain when you touch a tooth or when you eat or drink foods that are hot, cold, sweet, or sour (a sensitive tooth). Mild sensitivity can be caused by shrunken (receded) gums or a worn-down tooth. Moderate to severe sensitivity can mean a tooth has cracked, a dental cavity is present, or a filling has been lost. Seeing a dentist for treatment can prevent the tooth from dying.

The most common cause of a toothache is tooth decay, although a toothache may not be present in the early stages of decay. Other reasons for a toothache might include:

  • An infection of or around the tooth (abscess). A red, swollen, painful bump may be found near or on the side of the sore tooth. The tooth may especially hurt when you bite down.
  • A tooth that has not broken through the gum (impacted tooth). Gums may be red, swollen, and sore. The area around this tooth can ache, throb, and be quite painful.
  • Problems with or injury to the nerves in the center of the tooth (pulp), which can be caused by an injury to the face or from grinding or gnashing the teeth.

Sometimes a toothache can be caused by a another health problem, such as:

Gum problems

Healthy gums are pink and firm and do not bleed easily. Occasionally your gums may bleed if you brush your teeth and gums too hard, use a hard-bristled toothbrush, or snap dental floss hard against your gums. Be gentle with your teeth—use a soft-bristled toothbrush and floss carefully to help prevent bleeding gums.

Early-stage gum disease (gingivitis) causes red, swollen gums that bleed easily when brushed. Because gingivitis usually doesn't cause pain, many people delay treatment. If not treated, gum disease can cause more serious problems with the gum tissue.

As gum disease gets worse, the gums pull away from the teeth, leaving deep pockets where plaque can hide and cause further damage. This stage of gum disease is called periodontitis or periodontal disease and is caused by long-term infection of the gums, bone, and other tissues that surround and support the teeth. It can progress until the bones that support the teeth are damaged. In this late stage, teeth may become loose and fall out or need to be removed. Early treatment of gum disease is important to prevent tooth loss. As gum disease gets more severe (periodontitis), it becomes harder to treat.

Other causes of gum bleeding, swelling, and pain include:

  • Pregnancy, blood-thinning medicines, or bleeding disorders. Each of these can cause gums to bleed easily.
  • Lack of vitamins, such as vitamin K or vitamin C, or medical problems, such as anemia, that interfere with the body's ability to absorb certain vitamins.
  • Teething in babies and young children. For more information, see the topic Teething.
  • Medicines such as Dilantin or calcium channel blockers.
  • Dentures or a dental appliance that irritates the gums.
  • An infection around the root of the tooth. Swelling and redness, sometimes with pus, may appear at the base of a tooth.

Smoking and using other tobacco products increases your risk for gum disease. Smokers have a higher chance of having gum disease throughout their mouths than nonsmokers. You may not have symptoms of bleeding or swollen gums because the normal bleeding immune response is affected by tobacco use. Chewing tobacco or using snuff may push the gums back in the area of the mouth where the tobacco is inserted. Constant irritation caused by tobacco products increases your risk of oral cancer.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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  Dental Care: Brushing and Flossing Your Teeth

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

Toothache

To reduce pain and swelling of a toothache, use an ice pack on the outside of your cheek; do not use heat. Avoid very hot, cold, or sweet foods and drinks if they increase your pain.

Tooth sensitivity

To reduce sensitivity to heat, cold, or brushing, consider using a toothpaste specifically designed for sensitive teeth. Brush with it regularly or rub a small amount of the paste on the sensitive area with your finger a 2 to 3 times a day. Floss gently between your teeth.

Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.

Gum problems

If your gums are mildly swollen and red, use a tartar-control toothpaste that contains fluoride and an antiseptic mouthwash, such as Listerine, or a mouthwash that contains fluoride. Make sure you brush after meals and snacks and floss every day. If you cannot brush after eating, chew sugar-free gum, use a tooth pick, or rinse your mouth with warm salt water. You can make your own salt water by mixing 1 tsp (5 g) of salt in a medium-sized glass [8 fl oz (240 mL)] of warm water.

Tobacco can cause many gum problems, decreases your ability to fight infection of your gums, and delays healing. Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Do not use illegal drugs, such as methamphetamines, which cause tooth and gum problems.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Gum or tooth problems last for more than 2 weeks.
  • Symptoms persist or become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Keeping your teeth and gums healthy requires good nutrition and regular brushing and flossing. To avoid a tooth or gum problem:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day, in the morning and before bedtime. Floss once a day.
  • Use a toothpaste that contains fluoride.
  • Avoid foods that contain a lot of sugar. Sugar helps plaque grow.
  • Ask your dentist or dental hygienist about tongue cleaning. You can use a tongue cleaner or a soft-bristled toothbrush, stroking in a front-to-back direction. Tongue cleaning is particularly important for people who smoke or whose tongues are coated or deeply grooved.
  • Ask your dentist or hygienist whether he or she recommends using a mouthwash that contains fluoride and ingredients to reduce plaque.
  • Schedule regular trips to the dentist. Most dentists recommend exams and cleaning 2 times a year. Some experts believe those who are at low risk for dental problems need only a yearly exam.
  • Get regular checkups or recommended blood tests ordered by your doctor if you are on a blood-thinning medicine or you have a bleeding disorder.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products because it decreases your ability to fight gum infection and delays healing. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • Do not use illegal drugs, such as methamphetamines, which cause tooth and gum problems.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Do you have tooth pain?
    • When did the pain start?
    • Has the pain been constant or does it come and go?
    • Does anything make the pain better or worse?
    • Does the pain awaken you from sleep or interfere with any other activities?
  • Do your gums bleed?
    • When did the bleeding start?
    • What makes your gums bleed?
  • How often do you brush and floss your teeth?
  • When was your last dental examination? Do you visit a dentist regularly?
  • Have you had a dental or gum problem in the past?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised July 24, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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