Question: “I have a toothache but it’s not constant. It’s a pain that comes and goes, sometimes when I eat. What can I do to relieve the pain until I can make an appointment? Is this considered a dental emergency?”

Answer by Dr. Darbro: "I am here to help think through this problem with you. As I, understand it, you have tooth pain that happens at times, sometimes when you eat. You want to know if this is a dental emergency and what you can do until you can visit the dentist.

I think you bring up a good question, namely, what does a dental emergency look like and when should you call the dentist for an emergency appointment? Let me start there.

I like to define a dental emergency as something that has happened that significantly impairs the function of your mouth. Cracked teeth that are avoided when you chew, a crown that has fallen out, pain when you eat, a toothache that keeps you up at night, all mean a special visit to the dentist to evaluate the problem. At times, a small pain in the tooth can also mean a big problem. Sometimes someone with significant dental disease can continue for months and sometimes years with no pain whatsoever. So a "sometimes" pain that is impairing your ability to chew is a concern that should be addressed by a dentist right away.

A tooth that sometimes hurts could be suffering from a number of different problems. Some of the problems that cause this kind of pain are serious and require dental treatment. Fillings, crowns, root canal and even extraction could be necessary to fix the tooth. The earliest a dentist can diagnose the problem, the more likely the treatment will be less involved. The sooner you have a dentist evaluate the problem, the better.

Seeing a dentist immediately would be ideal, but sometimes life events and dentist availability can delay dental visits. Here are some tips that can help you care for the tooth before you can get in to see the dentist.

  • Keep the tooth as clean as you can, but clean it gently. Don’t experiment around with different chemicals to try to fix the problem. They usually only make it much worse.
  • Do avoid chewing in that area. Go on a soft food diet. If a tooth hurts when you chew, it may be cracked. More use of the tooth may cause the tooth to further crack.
  • Monitor what happens when the tooth begins hurting. Does it hurt at night? Does it hurt all the time? Only when you chew certain foods? All of this information may be very helpful to the dentist when you do get an appointment.
  • If necessary take over-the-counter medications (if you can take them). Don’t attempt to take too many, if the pain persists. Taking more over the counter pain relievers than recommended is becoming a big problem. If the pain continues, don’t take more, see a dentist.

I hope this helps. I do hope you find resolution to your tooth problem, and can return to eating pain free."

*Dr. Matthew Darbro practices at Glendora Smiles Dentistry and Orthodontics, a Smile Generation-approved office, in Glendora, CA.