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What Your Mouth Pain Means

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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.

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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 in the gums. 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.
  • Dry socket may occur after a dental extraction (tooth pull). It can cause pain, bad breath, and other symptoms.

Medical conditions

Certain medical conditions that affect the mouth can lead to pain.

  • Oral infection: Cold sores, from the herpes virus, can cause painful sores on the gums, lips, or other parts of the mouth. A related but rare condition is herpetic stomatitis, an oral herpes infection that causes fever and red and inflamed gums.
  • 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.
  • Burning mouth syndrome (BMS): A chronic pain syndrome that causes burning pain or sensation in your mouth.


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. Mucosal melanoma of the head and neck (MMHN) is a rare cancer occurring in approximately 1% of all melanomas
  • Chemotherapy: The mouth is commonly affected as a side effect of chemotherapy. Possible symptoms include ulcers and taste changes.

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.

It's important to consider some over-the-counter (OTC) treatment options that could alleviate your symptoms:

  • For gum inflammation and dental sensitivity: An anti-inflammatory oral gel can provide quick relief for sore gums. Try a product containing benzocaine or lidocaine.
  • For dry mouth and general discomfort: A moisturizing mouth spray can help keep your mouth hydrated, which is especially useful if you're experiencing dry mouth alongside your pain.
  • For tooth sensitivity: Using a toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth can help reduce pain triggered by hot or cold foods.

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.

  • Dental infection: This can be signaled by difficulty breathing or opening your mouth, facial swelling, or changes in your voice, especially if fever is also present.
  • Trauma: This can be signaled by significant bleeding or swelling, severe pain, or loss of a tooth after a facial injury.

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.

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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