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Mouth pain can be a sign of gum disease, dental infections, mouth sores, or abnormal growth in the mouth that originates from oral cancer, especially if the tongue and roof of the mouth are affected. Below we discuss several mouth pain causes and categories of conditions. We also review at-home remedies for better oral health and symptoms that warrant a visit to the doctor’s office or even an emergency.
Mouth pain symptoms
Mouth pain can be severe and debilitating to the point of interfering with necessary activities like eating and drinking. Several structures in the mouth can be impacted by pain, including the teeth, gums, tongue, and lips. Pain may be the only issue, but other bothersome symptoms are often present, and some causes of mouth pain can be dangerous to overall health. It may be difficult to get rid of mouth pain, but some causes will resolve with medical or dental treatment or even on their own.
Common characteristics and accompanying symptoms of mouth pain
If you're experiencing mouth pain, it is also likely to experience:
Causes of mouth pain
A few main causes of mouth pain are described below in order from most to least common. These include injury, dental disease, medical conditions and cancer.
Mouth pain after an injury, such as during a sports game or in a car accident, may occur due to a cut or tooth damage.
Chronic dental disease
Chronic gum and tooth disease, often due to poor oral hygiene, can lead to pain. The progressing disease causes a predisposition to infections, which can worsen pain and result in dangerous complications.
- Cavities: Buildup of plaque from a combination of food and bacteria will eventually cause tooth decay. As cavities progress, tooth pain occurs with chewing and exposure to hot and cold temperatures.
- Gum disease: Plaque can also lead to chronic gum inflammation, ultimately causing the gums to pull away from the teeth. The gums are often swollen, red, and painful.
Certain medical conditions that affect the mouth can lead to pain.
- Oral infection: A mouth infection with the herpes virus causes painful sores on the gums, lips, and/or other parts of the mouth.
- Chronic mouth conditions: Persistent mouth pain can occur without a clear underlying cause (burning mouth syndrome). The tongue and roof of the mouth are typically affected, and other oral symptoms can occur, such as dryness. Mouth pain can also be caused by recurring "canker sores."
- Systemic medical conditions: Multiple medical problems can cause mouth pain, including nutritional deficiencies and some autoimmune conditions.
Cancer that directly impacts the mouth or chemotherapy can both lead to mouth pain.
- Mouth cancer: A skin cancer growing in the mouth will often be painful. This commonly appears as a thickening area or ulcer on the tongue.
- Chemotherapy: The mouth is commonly affected as a side effect of chemotherapy. Possible symptoms include ulcers and taste changes.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Gingivitis is the inflammation of the gums. It is typically caused by poor dental hygiene and the buildup of bacteria. Its hallmark symptoms are swollen, discolored, bleeding gums. The main risk factors for the development of the disease are increasing age, smoking, and dry mouth. It is both treatable and ...
Herpetic stomatitis is a viral infection of the mouth that causes fever and red and inflamed gums. This typically happens early in childhood.
Top Symptoms: fever, gum pain, painful mouth sore, gum swelling, gum redness
Symptoms that always occur with oral herpes: gum pain
Melanoma of the mouth
Mucosal melanoma of the head and neck (MMHN) is a rare cancer that is approximately 10% of melanomas arising in the head and neck and approximately 1% of all malignant melanomas. It is more common in an elderly population and has a poor prognosis.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: gum pain, gum swelling, brown-colored skin changes, black-colored skin changes, mouth rash resembling an amalgam tattoo
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis (anug)
Acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis (ANUG) is a relatively rare infection of the gums. It's also known as "trench mouth", as it was discovered in a large number of soldiers in WWI that were stuck in trenches. The pain caused by ANUG is what makes it different from chronic periodontitis, and it requires treatment by professionals.
Top Symptoms: bleeding gums, gum pain, chronically bad breath, severe mouth pain, gum swelling
Urgency: In-person visit
A cold sore is a skin lesion on the lips caused by infection with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Cold sores are extremely common. In fact, most adults are infected with HSV, usually transmitted in childhood by normal close contact with parents, siblings or friends.
While the infection can be entirely unnoti..
Burning mouth syndrome
Burning mouth syndrome (BMS) is a chronic pain syndrome defined as having a burning pain or sensation in your mouth without a cause that can be found. It happens way more often in women (7 times more likely), typically during times of hormonal changes (just before or during menopause). While no one has identified the cause, it could have to do with the makeup of saliva, damage from dentures, tics or teeth grinding, infections, and even autoimmune diseases.
Top Symptoms: dry mouth, changed sense of taste, tongue pain, burning sensation in the mouth, moderate mouth pain
Symptoms that always occur with burning mouth syndrome: burning sensation in the mouth, tongue pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Dry socket (postextraction alveolar osteitis)
Dry socket (or postextraction alveolar osteitis) is a common cause of severe pain after a dental extraction (tooth pull). It's known to be related to how the extraction was done, menstrual cycle, tobacco smoking, age, sex, and whether you have had an extraction before.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: constant mouth pain, chronically bad breath, changed sense of taste, severe mouth pain, mouth pain at the site of a dental procedure
Symptoms that always occur with dry socket (postextraction alveolar osteitis): mouth pain at the site of a dental procedure, constant mouth pain
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Mouth pain treatments and relief
Many causes of mouth pain are chronic and can be evaluated on a non-urgent basis. However, an acute injury or spreading infection can have complications if untreated.
At-home treatments for mouth pain
There are a few methods you can try at home to help alleviate your mouth pain.
- Avoid sugary foods and drinks: These will worsen cavities and gum disease.
- Practice good dental hygiene: To prevent progression of any dental disease, brush twice daily (preferably with a motorized toothbrush) and floss once a day.
- Address sensitivity: Try using a toothpaste for sensitive teeth if you are having tooth pain, and avoid hot and cold foods.
- Avoid smoking and spicy foods: These can worsen mouth pain.
- Manage stress: Try meditation or other strategies to mitigate anxiety, since stress may worsen burning mouth syndrome and gum disease.
- Drink more water or use ice: If your mouth pain is associated with dryness, increase your fluid intake or suck on ice chips.
When to see a doctor for mouth pain
In some cases, even if emergency care isn't necessary, you may need evaluation and treatment especially if at-home treatments are not effective. Make an appointment with your medical provider for the following.
- Unhealing or recurrent ulcers
- Painful ulcers
- Pain with chewing or hot and cold temperatures
- Loose teeth or swollen, painful gums
- You have burning mouth pain: That is staying the same or getting worse over time
- You are experiencing mouth pain while receiving chemotherapy
- Difficulty eating and drinking due to pain
Medical treatments for mouth pain
After evaluation, your medical provider can then prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of your mouth pain:
- Medication for other conditions: A low dosage of a medication also used for psychiatric or neurological conditions may help alleviate pain associated with burning mouth syndrome.
- Fluoride treatment: This can help restore the enamel that protects against cavities. Cavities, also called caries, are extremely prevalent in the entire population worldwide but can be effectively mitigated with fluoride.
- Treatment for existing cavities: This would possibly including fillings or removal of severely decayed teeth.
- Cream or oral medication: An antiviral cream or oral medication may be used for a herpes infection.
- Numbing treatments: You may choose cream or mouthwash containing an anesthetic.
- Increasing saliva: Saliva replacement or a medication that increases saliva production may be helpful if you suffer from a dry mouth.
- Antibiotics for any infection
- Treatment of other underlying conditions
When mouth pain is an emergency
If you experience the following, you should seek immediate treatment.
Questions your doctor may ask about mouth pain
- Where specifically is your mouth pain?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS?
- Do you have a rash?
- Does your breath smell worse than usual?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Lauren is a resident physician in family medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She earned her medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College. Lauren also has an interest in teaching as well as experience with college tutoring and writing MCAT preparatory materials. She believes family medicine challenges her to maintain a broad field of medical knowledge and she hopes to work in an academic setting in the future. In her free time, Lauren enjoys running, reading, and visiting historic sites.
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