Treating Toothache With Clove Oil

Used for Centuries to Provide Short-Term Relief

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Close-up of clove/spice in a ceramic spoon
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Toothaches can be distressing, particularly if you can't get to the dentist's office immediately. While some people will reach for an over-the-counter topical anesthetic like Orajel or Anbesol, others will head to the health food store for a bottle of clove oil—a natural remedy used for centuries to treat tooth pain. While it is safe when used correctly and may provide you with relief, there are limitations to its use and things you should know before using it or any therapeutic oil.

Background

Popular in Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, cloves were once inserted whole into an infected cavity or applied as a topical extract to relieve pain and inflammation.

By the early 19th century, the active ingredient, Eugenium aromaticum, was combined with magnesium oxide to create a temporary filling material. The magnesium oxide has since been replaced by zinc oxide to produce zinc oxide eugenol (ZOE), a temporary filling cement still popularly used in orthodontics.

Cloves are dried flower buds taken from a tree of the Myrtaceae family. The oil is usually extracted through steam distillation; other producers rely on chemical solvents and boiling to obtain the prized oil. Depending on the method used, a refined oil can contain anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent eugenol.

How It Works

Eugenol is the chemical that gives clove its spicy scent and pungent flavor. When applied to tissues, it creates a warming sensation that Chinese herbalists believe treat yang deficiencies.

Clove oil works similarly to capsicum in peppers by stimulating the production of a protein known as trans receptor potential vanilloid-1 (TRPV-1) which, in turn, desensitizes nerve endings near the surface of the skin. It also exerts potent antibacterial properties that can aid in healing and prevent infection.

Clove oil, which can be colorless or have a slightly yellowish tinge, is often used in dentistry to treat pain from a dry socket following the extraction of a tooth. It can provide short-term relief of tooth pain but doesn't necessarily treat the underlying cause (such as an abscess, tooth decay, or a tooth fracture).

While there had been some suggestions that clove oil is just as effective as benzocaine in treating toothache, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently downgraded eugenol, citing that the evidence supporting its use was lacking.

Applications

Clove oil should never be applied to the gums undiluted as it can cause irritation and may lead to toxicity. Instead, it is best diluted by adding a two to three drops to a neutral carrier oil, such as olive oil or canola oil. The oil preparation can then be dabbed onto the affected tissue with a cotton ball or swab. You can even keep the cotton ball in place for several minutes to increase absorption.

Upon application, you should feel a slight warming sensation and a pungent, gunpowdery flavor. The numbing effect should be fully felt within five to 10 minutes. You can reapply every two to three hours as needed.

If you have multiple areas of mouth pain following a dental procedure, you can add a few drops of clove oil to a teaspoon of coconut oil and swirl it in your mouth to coat. (Do not swallow.) People have also been known to apply ground cloves directly to the gums, the taste of which most find off-putting.

Side Effects

While clove oil is considered safe if used appropriately, it can become increasingly toxic if overused.

The most common side effect is tissue irritation, which is characterized by pain, swelling, redness, and a burning (rather than warming) sensation. This would either suggest that the concentration is too high or you are especially sensitive to eugenol. Do not persist with treatment as this may lead to the formation of oral lesions (contact stomatitis).

Clove oil should never be ingested. Animal studies have shown that this can lead to liver damage as well as the thickening and hardening of esophageal and stomach tissues. Gastric ulcers and kidney impairment were also noted.

Allergic reactions can be expected in around 2 percent of users. Most cases are mild and transient with localized rash, itching, swelling, and scratchy throat. Clove oil is generally not associated with anaphylaxis.

If swallowed in large quantities, clove oil can cause severe symptoms, including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Seek urgent medical care if you have accidentally swallowed a large amount of clove oil. Keep the oil well out of reach of children to avoid accidental ingestion.

You should also avoid the excessive inhalation of clove oil, which can trigger respiratory symptoms, including a sore throat, coughing, and shortness of breath. Long-term exposure may even increase the risk of lung infection (as evidenced in part by the high rate of infection and pulmonary edema in clove cigarette smokers).

Contraindications

Clove oil should not be used if you are actively bleeding as eugenol interferes with normal blood clotting. As such, it may not be appropriate for people with bleeding disorders or those who regularly take blood thinners such as warfarin. It should also be avoided prior to a dental procedure as it may promote excessive bleeding.

While clove oil is not regulated in the same way as a pharmaceutical drug, the FDA strongly advises against its use in children.

A Word From Verywell

While clove oil has long been a tried-and-true remedy for many families, it is not for everyone. If you are unable to tolerate the taste or experience adverse symptoms, there are other options you can try, including:

  • Rinsing your mouth with salt water or ice water
  • Dabbing diluted peppermint oil on your gums
  • Pressing a moistened peppermint tea bag against your gums
  • Placing a cold compress against your cheek
  • Taking an over-the-counter analgesic like Tylenol (acetaminophen)

Whatever you do, do not use clove oil (or any other natural or pharmaceutical product) as a substitute for proper dental care. If a toothache is persistent or worsening, seek treatment to avoid potentially serious and costly complications. If you do not have insurance and are hard-pressed to afford dental care, you can search for low-cost and no-cost providers in your area through the online locator managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Article Sources
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. Clove. MedlinePlus. Bethesda, Maryland; updated July 2, 2018.

  • Algareer, A.; Alyahya, A.; Andersson, L. et al. The effect of clove and benzocaine versus placebo as topical anesthetics. J Dent.2006;34(10):747-50. DOI: 10.1016/j.jdent.2006.01.009.

  • National Institutes of Health. Eugenol. ToxNet. Bethesda, Maryland; updated April 9, 2013.