What To Know and Do About Gum Pain

What To Know and Do About Gum Pain


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Medically reviewed by Edmund Khoo, DDSMedically reviewed by Edmund Khoo, DDS

Your gums are the soft, pink tissues that wrap around the base of your teeth, anchoring them in place and acting as a protective barrier. Gum pain, whether mild soreness or a throbbing ache, can be extremely uncomfortable and affect everyday activities like eating and speaking.

There are several possible causes of gum pain, ranging from minor issues like brushing or flooding your teeth roughly to more serious conditions such as gum disease or infection. Fortunately, most causes of gum pain are treatable. Whatever the reason, it’s important to address gum pain promptly to avoid worsening pain and complications that can affect your oral and overall health.

How Gum Pain Presents 

Gum pain feels different for every person, and your discomfort will depend on what's causing your pain. The pain may be localized, meaning you only feel it in one area of your gums, or generalized, meaning the pain is more widespread throughout the gums in different areas of your mouth. Some people experience pain only when doing certain activities, like brushing teeth or chewing food. Others, however, may have constant pain that doesn't subside. 

If you're experiencing gum pain, the discomfort may feel like a dull ache or throbbing pain. Other symptoms can also occur alongside your pain, such as:

Potential Causes of Gum Pain

Gum pain has several possible causes, from everyday habits that affect oral health to underlying health conditions. Knowing what causes gum pain can help you identify when to seek appropriate treatment. 

Periodontal Disease (Gum Disease)

Periodontal disease (gum disease) causes inflammation of the gums, which develops when plaque (a sticky film of bacteria) builds up on the teeth and gums. Gum disease is very common, affecting nearly half of all adults in the United States. There are two primary types of gum disease including: 

  • Gingivitis: Mild gum disease that causes red and swollen gums that may bleed when brushing or flossing. Not everyone with gingivitis experiences pain, though it can cause some tenderness. 
  • Periodontitis: Advanced gum disease that damages the gums and bones that support the teeth. When plaque hardens into tartar, gum irritation can create pockets between the teeth and gums. These pockets trap bacteria, causing infection and destroying gum tissue and bone.

Better oral hygiene practices can reverse gingivitis. If left untreated, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, which requires regular dental treatment to prevent complications like tooth loss and infection. Risk factors for gum disease include: 

Rough Brushing or Flossing 

Brushing too hard or using a worn-out or hard-bristled toothbrush can significantly damage gum tissue, leading to sore or tender gums. Forceful or improper flossing techniques can also cause gum injuries. If you injure your gums while brushing or flossing, your gums may bleed. To prevent gum injury, you can:

  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush
  • Replace your toothbrush every three to four months
  • Floss with standard dental floss, dental picks, or water flossers
  • Avoid flossing with non-dental items like folded paper, your fingernails, or safety pins

Canker Sores

Canker sores are small, non-contagious ulcers that can develop on the gums, tongue, or inside of the cheeks or lips. A canker sore may appear yellow or pale-colored with a red outer ring and cause sharp, burning pain, especially when you touch it. Most canker sores last a week or two and heal on their own. 

Anyone can develop a canker sore, but they are most common in people assigned female at birth (AFAB). Risk factors for canker sores on your gums include: 

  • Weakened immune system from a recent illness
  • Hormonal changes (e.g., pregnancy or menstruation) 
  • Stress 
  • Nutritional deficiencies 
  • Forceful toothbrushing 
  • Poorly fitting dentures 

Dental Abscess

A dental abscess is an infection that develops from tooth decay, periodontal disease, or a cracked or chipped tooth. Tooth decay or injury can allow bacteria to enter the soft tissue (pulp) that contains nerves and blood vessels, leading to an infection and the formation of pus. Pus can then build up in the root tip, creating an abscess. Symptoms of a dental abscess include: 

  • Pus-filled bump on your gums
  • Severe or throbbing pain
  • Red or swollen gums
  • Bitter taste or bad breath
  • Fever
  • Teeth sensitivity
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck 

Hormonal Changes

Fluctuations in hormone levels, particularly during pregnancy, puberty, and menopause, can affect your gum health. Increased estrogen and progesterone levels increase blood flow to your gums, which makes them more sensitive to irritants like plaque. You may notice your gums become swollen, inflamed, or bleed more easily when you have your period or during pregnancy.

People assigned female at birth (AFAB) going through menopause experience changes to their oral health as their hormone levels fluctuate, too. During menopause, you may experience burning sensations in your mouth or gums or increased sensitivity to potential gum irritants. 

Oral Allergy Syndrome

Oral allergy syndrome (OAS), or pollen-food allergy syndrome, is when people with pollen allergies develop mild symptoms that affect the mouth after eating certain fruits and vegetables. The proteins in these foods are similar to those found in pollen, triggering an allergic reaction in the mouth. Symptoms of OAS develop within minutes after eating the trigger food, which may include: 

  • Swollen or irritated gums, lips, or tongue
  • Itchiness or tingling sensation in the mouth

About one in three people with seasonal allergies may develop oral allergy syndrome (OAS). This condition typically does not affect children and is most common in teens and adults. In most cases, people can eat the trigger foods—such as bananas, kiwis, pears, peaches, and tomatoes—for many years without any issues before developing OAS.  

Less Common Causes

While less common, other causes of gum pain include:

  • Oral cancer 
  • Nutritional deficiencies (e.g., Vitamin A, B12, C, and D)
  • Certain medications, such as calcium channel blockers or immunosuppressants
  • Heavy metal poisoning
  • Radiation poisoning

When to Contact a Dentist

While some gum pain may resolve on its own with improved oral hygiene, it's wise to err on the side of caution and see a dentist when: 

  • Your gums bleed easily, even without brushing or flossing 
  • Gum pain persists for two weeks or longer
  • The discomfort prevents you from eating or drinking normally 
  • You notice a loose tooth or pus on your gums or around your teeth 

It’s also important to seek medical attention if you develop sudden, throbbing gum pain with a fever or facial swelling, as this may be a sign of a more serious condition.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing the cause of gum pain involves a comprehensive evaluation by a dental provider, such as a dentist or dental hygienist. You can expect your provider to do the following: 

  • Take your medical history and learn about your symptoms and lifestyle habits
  • Perform an oral exam to identify signs of disease or injury in your mouth, gums, and teeth
  • Probe your gums with a tiny ruler to assess the presence and severity of gum disease
  • Order dental X-rays to detect issues like bone loss or abscesses
  • Request blood tests to check for infections or underlying conditions that can affect your gums

Depending on what your dentist finds during the examination, they may refer you to a periodontist (a dentist with special training in diagnosing and treating gum disease) for extra care.

Treatment

Your exact treatment plan for gum pain will depend on the exact cause of your pain and the severity of your symptoms. Generally, your dentist (or other dental provider) may recommend a combination of home remedies and medical treatments.

Home Remedies

Some causes of gum pain will resolve in time with home remedies and good oral hygiene practices, such as:

  • Saltwater rinses: Mix one-half teaspoon (tsp) of salt with one cup of water and rinse your mouth several times daily to reduce inflammation and soothe sore gums
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: Use medicines like Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil (ibuprofen) to reduce pain and discomfort
  • Good oral hygiene: Brush your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush and floss twice daily to remove plaque and food particles from your teeth and gums
  • Avoid irritants: Limit foods, beverages, and oral care products that irritate your gums and worsen your pain, such as spicy or hot foods, alcohol-based mouthwashes, and popcorn and other salty snacks
  • Clove oil or gel: Apply diluted clove oil or gel to sore gums to help relieve gum pain

Medical Treatments

When home remedies aren't enough to treat gum pain, your dental provider may recommend more advanced treatment options, including:

  • Professional dental cleaning: Removes plaque and tartar buildup and promotes gum healing 
  • Antibiotics: Helps treat infections like dental abscesses by eliminating the bacteria causing them
  • Antiseptic mouthwash: Controls gum inflammation and swelling, such as Peridex (chlorhexidine gluconate)
  • Dental procedures: Treats abscesses or advanced gum disease via root canals, abscess drainage, or laser therapy
  • Surgery: Restores damaged tissues through surgical options like gum grafts, bone grafts, or other periodontal surgeries

A Quick Review

Gum pain has many possible causes, including gum disease, poor toothbrushing habits, or canker sores. In most cases, good oral hygiene and home remedies can ease gum pain.

If advanced gum disease or a bacterial infection is causing your pain, your dentist may recommend professional cleanings, prescription medications, dental procedures to manage pain and prevent complications.

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