I recently came down with the flu myself after a long vacation that I had hoped would leave me recharged and ready to get back to work. Unfortunately, my body had other plans. Between the boxes of tissues, fever, and body aches, I just gave in and rode the wave. That is, until my teeth started aching.
"Why are my teeth hurting? What did I do? Do I need to make an emergency dental appointment?" were the frantic thoughts running through my mind. Thankfully, I quickly learned, my sore teeth were just another symptom of the flu.
Why do your teeth hurt when you’re sick?
When you’re sick, your body produces white blood cells to fight off the bacteria or virus that’s affecting you. This also leads to inflammation, which can cause redness, swelling, pain, and heat in the affected area. Where you have pain, swelling, and other symptoms depends on the illness itself as well as your immune response. When you have a cold or a flu, for example, it’s not uncommon to have body aches.
Well, it turns out that having aching teeth (or gums) are another example of inflammation at work. “Teeth inflammation often finds its way into the ligament space between our tooth roots and the surrounding bone,” says Danny Snyder, DDS, a dentist and founder of Slate Electric Flosser. Inflammation there has two major outcomes, he says. “One, the teeth raise slightly, so we bite together our teeth [and] experience a greater force than they otherwise would, and two, the inflammation often hyper-sensitizes the teeth to hot, cold, and chewing pressure.”
If you have a head cold, you might be more prone to tooth pain. That’s because your sinuses cavities sit in your face underneath your eyes, very close to your teeth and palate. When those sinuses become inflamed (as they do when you’re sick), they might press down on your teeth, causing aching and throbbing.
There are a few other factors that can cause tooth pain when you’re sick, says Bindiya Gandhi, MD, a double-board certified family and integrative medicine doctor and the medical director at Revive Atlanta MD. "These include: sinus infections, strep throat, etc., and are linked to dehydration, side effects to medications, and sometimes an overall immune response,” she says.
How to relieve dental pain when you’re sick, according to experts
While the tooth pain may be frustrating at first, it won't have any long-term effects on your oral health; it's a sign that your body’s immune system is working hard. That said, it’s still not fun to deal with. Here are some ways to help soothe the tooth pain while you’re sick.
1. Stay hydrated
Drinking enough fluids while you’re sick is critical—and it may help prevent or alleviate tooth pain, too. Dehydration can dry out tooth and mouth tissue, which can be painful.
Additionally, breathing through your mouth—as you likely do when you’re congested—can cause dry mouth, which can increase tooth sensitivity. Certain medications you might take when you’re sick could also cause dry mouth, adds Dr. Snyder. “Out of the top 100 prescribed medications in the US, all 100 have dry mouth as a possible side effect,” says he says. “The dryer our mouth is, the more likely we will experience poor outcomes from bad breath, soft tissue lesions, to cavities, and gum disease.”
To address both dehydration and dry mouth, Dr. Gandhi advises drinking water and warm soups. She also loves sipping on bone broth due to its anti-inflammatory properties, which may help with muscle and joint pain.
2. Use a non-alcoholic mouthwash
Ditch the alcohol-based mouthwashes, as they tend to be more harsh and cause more irritation and oral discomfort. Alcohol also has a drying effect, which can make you more dehydrated. “Rinsing with a non-alcoholic mouth rinse or warm salt water can also help get rid of any bad tastes that are generated which you’re sick,” adds Dr. Snyder.
3. Take OTC pain meds
“Over-the-counter [acetaminophen] or ibuprofen, as needed, will help with pain and reduce your fever,” says Dr. Gandhi. Both ibuprofen (found in Advil and Motrin) and acetaminophen (used in Tylenol) curb prostaglandin production, which is involved in pain, inflammation, and fever. Dr. Gandhi says to take these medications “as needed” to help with pain and fever reduction, making sure to follow packet directions.
4. Keep up with your usual brushing habits
While this isn’t going to necessarily help minimize dental pain when unwell, Dr. Snyder says it’s common to see bad oral hygiene during periods of sickness—which can cause issues down the road. “When people are sick, they get out of their normal routine, and they often forget or avoid brushing and flossing for one reason or another,” he says. “This is a time when preventative care is probably the most important, and while you may not feel up to it, your oral environment suffers because of it.”
Symptoms of oral pain should dissipate within a few days of feeling better. However, if they don’t, make an appointment with your dentist. “Particularly if there’s one specific tooth that’s really hurting and possibly keeping you up at night, it’s time to call your dentist,” says Dr. Snyder.
- Mar-Solís, Laura M et al. “Analysis of the Anti-Inflammatory Capacity of Bone Broth in a Murine Model of Ulcerative Colitis.” Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania) vol. 57,11 1138. 20 Oct. 2021, doi:10.3390/medicina57111138
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