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A Toothache While Backpacking


A toothache while backpacking can be more than just annoying. It can bring a good wilderness trip to an end. The following are some tips for preventing a toothache before you head down that trail, and for treating it if you get one anyhow.

Dental Care in the Wilderness

Don't ever go on a long backpacking trip if you have an unresolved tooth problem, or even the hint of a toothache starting. Get it taken care of. If there is still lingering pain after the dentist does his thing, be sure to also get a prescription pain reliever to take with you.

Do any dental work far enough in advance of your trip to be sure it is completely done. Often a high spot on a new filling will start to cause severe pain several days after it is put in. A dentist can easily solve this problem by grinding down the high spot - if you're not already in the middle of the wilderness.

Don't do anything that can cause toothaches or other dental problems while backpacking. I've almost cracked teeth on hard corn nuts while backpacking. I bring corn chips now instead. Fortunately popcorn is not a common backpacking food, because it may be one of the worst foods for damaging teeth.

Bringing a toothbrush and dental floss is a good idea on any backpacking trip (floss can also be used as fish line and to tie things together if need be). Forgot a toothbrush? Chew the end of a dogwood twig until it is brush-like, and use that. brushing and flossing is about long-term care, of course, but what if you have a toothache that starts when you are days away from your car?

Treating a Toothache

Bring aspirin with you. Tylenol #3 is even better for a severe toothache, if you have some. Antiseptics containing benzocaine, applied directly to the irritated teeth and gums, will relieve pain. Oil of cloves (eugenol) will also work temporarily. Don't put aspirin or other painkillers directly on your gums, as they may burn the gum tissue.

Not all toothaches originate in the teeth or gums. Some are actually due to sinus infections. If the pain is hard to locate precisely, and is felt deeply, it may be a sinus infection putting pressure on the gums from above. You may need to eliminate the infection to get relief, so use antibiotics if you are sure this is the cause. You may get some temporary relief by steaming (carefully) your face, or eating hot sauce to open up the sinuses.

If your teeth are sensitive to temperature changes, you should obviously avoid hot and cold drinks. Warm your water bottle under your clothes if you have to. Breath through your nose. Breathing through your mouth sends cold air flowing over your teeth and can cause a lot of pain.

Right now, I have a tooth problem - the inspiration for this article. Several days ago, I noticed that each time we drove over a mountain pass here in Colorado, the pain intensified. Getting below 8,000 feet seemed to take the pain away every time. Watch for this - you might resolve some of the pain by hiking down to a lower elevation.

If you are out of pain relievers, get out your plant identification guide. You can try chewing on catnip leaves for relief. You can also make tea out of the twigs of willows or poplars. They contain some compounds that are similar to aspirin.

If you are starting to get a toothache, you probably shouldn't hike any further into the wilderness. If you continue the trip, look for a route that keeps you near your car. If the toothache becomes painful enough to suck the fun out of your backpacking trip, you should call it quits - it's time to see a dentist.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | A Toothache While Backpacking