A Toothache While Backpacking
By Steve Gillman
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
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.