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What is a toothache?

When your child complains of a painful tooth, sometimes it is just a temporarily sensitive tooth. If the toothache persists, however, it usually means that your child has tooth decay or a cavity. One complication of a decaying tooth is a gumboil just below the gumline. The infection in the tooth may also spread to the face (causing a swollen cheek) or to the lymph node just under the jawbone.

How can I take care of my child?

  • Flossing

    First use dental floss on either side of the painful tooth. The removal of a jammed piece of food may bring quick relief.

  • Pain relief medicine

    First treat the toothache with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). If the pain lasts more than a day or becomes severe, call your dentist. A cold pack on the jaw for 20 minutes may also help.

  • Oil of cloves for severe toothache

    If you cannot see a dentist for several days and an open cavity is visible, clean all food out of the cavity with a toothpick, Water-Pik, or water in a syringe. Put in a few drops of oil of cloves (80% eugenol). You won't need a prescription to get oil of cloves at your drugstore. If the cavity is large, pack it with a small piece of cotton soaked with oil of cloves. Try to keep the oil of cloves off the tongue because it stings. The cavity can also be temporarily sealed with melted candle wax. Just rub it in with your fingertip.

  • Salt water

    Have your child swish warm salt water around in his mouth. This can help reduce gum swelling, and reduce tooth pain.

How can I help my child prevent toothaches?

Remind your child to brush his teeth, especially the back molars, after every meal. Be sure to use a fluoride toothpaste. If your city's water supply doesn't have fluoride added to it, ask your healthcare provider for a prescription for fluoride during your next routine visit. Make sure your child has regular dental check-ups.

When should I call my child's dentist?


  • The pain is very severe.
  • Your child has a fever (over 100°F, or 37.8°C).
  • Your child's face is swollen.
  • Your child is acting very sick.

Call during office hours if:

  • Your child has had the pain for more than a day.
  • You have other concerns or questions.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-06-21
Last reviewed: 2015-06-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD FAAP. All rights reserved.
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