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For many people, tooth pain triggers a certain calculus (and we don’t mean the technical term for tartar): Is the pain worse than the thought of going to the dentist?

Tight schedules, dread of the dentist and concern over of the bills that follow can lead to people to neglect tooth problems when they arise. “Most people are hesitant to see a dentist, period,” said Mark Booth, DDS, group practice leader and assistant professor at the University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugani School of Dentistry. “When you add in a little fear and a little discomfort, it can be even more challenging.”

But ignore the pain at our own risk. Even seemingly minor problems can lead to something worse down the road — think a root canal, a raging infection or a costly crown — before you know it.

What your teeth are telling you

There’s almost no kind of persistent tooth pain you should ignore, according to dental experts. Here are a five common types of pain and what you should know about each.

Pain from a cavity:

If you have a small cavity, the dentist can easily fill it. But if it gets larger, he or she may have to drill out a large area of the tooth and perhaps crown the tooth. If the damage is too extensive, you may even lose the tooth.

An untreated cavity also could develop into a raging infection. “If you let a cavity go untreated,” said Maria Lopez Howell, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association (ADA), “it could become an oral infection that could spread and, in very rare cases, be life threatening.”

Pain from a tooth abscess:

When a tooth is no longer able to fight off an infection, the bacteria may invade the root and cause an infection between the root and gum, resulting in a pocket of pus. You may experience swelling in your face or cheek, tender lymph nodes, a sensitivity to the pressure of chewing and persistent, throbbing pain that may keep you awake at night.

Wisdom teeth, which are harder to clean, are especially vulnerable to this type of infection. They are usually removed with some form of sedation at your general dentist’s office.

An abscess can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening. Consider the case of Kyle Willis, a 24-year-old Cincinnati man whose dentist advised him to have his wisdom tooth pulled. Because he was unemployed and uninsured, he put off the treatment. He was plagued by facial swelling and headaches and ended up in the emergency room, where he was prescribed antibiotics and pain medication, according to numerous press accounts. Unable to afford both, he skipped the antibiotics. His infection soon spread to his brain and he died.

Tooth and/or jaw pain:

Pain in your teeth and jaw pain may result from grinding your teeth, or you could have an infected tooth that is causing pain to travel to the jaw. Conditions such as arthritis, gum disease and sinus infection are other possible culprits, according to the ADA. In rare cases, tooth and jaw pain might be a sign of mouth cancer (also called oral cancer) or heart disease. See your dentist to get to the root of the problem.

Tooth pain combined with bad breath:

A garlic-laden meal might call for mints, but persistent bad breath can be a sign of gum disease, which can lead to tooth loss if it’s severe. Bad breath is also linked to dry mouth, sinus and lung infections, diabetes and some liver or kidney diseases. “Bad breath can be the sign of a medical disorder,” according to the ADA. “If you must constantly use a breath freshener to hide unpleasant mouth odor, see your dentist.”

Pain from cracked teeth:

Hairline fractures or tiny holes in your teeth may be barely visible, but they can be painful and create bigger problems if neglected. You may feel only a slight sensitivity or pain at first and may wonder why you should spend your money on such a small nuisance. The problem is that even the tiniest hole or crack may usher bacteria directly into your tooth, where they can cause an infection that can harm your tooth and even spread to the jawbone.


“Unfortunately, our teeth don’t tell us when they are healthy. They typically only tell us when something is wrong,” says Booth. “Any sign of pain is not a good sign, and the sooner it’s evaluated, the better off it will be for the patient and the treatment. The longer typically you delay treatment, the more difficult and complicated, as well as expensive, it becomes.”



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