A dull toothache can turn into searing pain once you're in the air. Any kind of tooth problem can be exacerbated by flying and the pressure changes, and new problems can arise during your flight. You might not be able to do much for your pain mid-flight, so taking care of your teeth beforehand is key. Attending to your dental needs can make future flights pain-free.
Flying's Effect on Teeth
Flying causes tooth pain for the same reason it might cause you ear pain: the air in your body is trying to adjust to the air pressure inside the plane, which changes frequently as you ascend and descend. A healthy tooth won't be affected by the changes in cabin pressure, but if you have any tooth decay or have had dental work done, tiny pockets of air can get into your teeth. As the pressure in the plane builds, the pressure in your teeth builds, causing pain. You might even detect pain in teeth that felt fine on the ground; you'll probably feel the pain in teeth with older fillings or those in the beginning stages of decay. Especially if you have sensitive teeth or haven’t had a dental care checkup in a while, if a tooth starts to hurt when you take off on your next flight, it could be telling of a piece of dental work you might need in the future.
Before You Fly
If you've felt any discomfort in your teeth before a flight, schedule an appointment with your dentist before you board. Flying shouldn't make your tooth problems worse -- for instance, it won't speed up tooth decay or knock a filling loose -- but you shouldn't have to be in pain the entire flight. Your dentist might find there's a problem with previous dental work or might discover a cavity that needs to be drilled and filled. Keep in mind that if you do need a new filling, you might have a new cause for discomfort, but the decay will only worsen if you don't seek treatment.
On the Plane
If your dentist approves, you might find that taking painkillers -- either prescription or over-the-counter options such as aspirin -- relieve or prevent your pain. Take medications like ibuprofen 30 minutes before boarding so they have time to work. Or you might use a topical analgesic as a pain reliever that your dental health provider gives to you for your air travel. Expect that eating will be painful in flight. If you need a snack, pick up soft foods in the terminal, such as a smoothie or container of yogurt or cottage cheese, to bring onboard. When the drink cart comes down the aisle, avoid the hot coffee or tea as well as sugary drinks such as juice or soda. Stick to water, and let it come to room temperature before sipping.
If you have dental surgery performed, it's generally safe to fly within a day of the procedure (assuming your surgeon gives permission). Bring plenty of gauze with you because you might experience bleeding from your gums. If at any point in your trip you develop a fever or spot signs of infection, such as swelling, redness and an unpleasant taste in your mouth, don't wait until you get home to seek treatment. Ask your dentist if he can recommend a dental practice in your destination city, or ask your hotel for a recommendation, then make an emergency appointment.