What is a Flyer’s Toothache?

What is a Flyer's toothache

Did you know that certain people can experience tooth pain while traveling in an airplane? This is known as aerodontalgia or barodontalgia, or more commonly as flyer’s toothache. A flyer’s toothache is characterized by tooth pain that occurs when there are changes in ambient pressure. In some cases, it is also described as a tooth squeeze because of the pressure. 

WWII pilot standing next to plane looking off into the distance

Although the condition is rare, it can be irritating to those people that it does affect. The most common victims of flyer’s toothache are underwater divers and military pilots. This is because underwater divers can be exposed to several atmospheres of pressure increase, while pilots deal with rapid changes in pressure. 

Aerodontalgia was first discovered and named during WWII when pilots began complaining of toothaches while flying. At that time, the planes they flew were unpressurized and were susceptible to significant changes in atmospheric (also known as barometric) pressure. 

As time went on, the same reports of toothaches were recorded by underwater divers that dive deep enough for the pressure to change. This solidified the hypothesis that the toothaches were the result of a change in barometric pressure. Consequently, the name was changed from aerodontalgia to barodontalgia. However, the common name ‘flyer’s toothache’ remained the same. 

Research eventually discovered that tooth pain while flying or diving was the result of air pockets that would expand when pressure decreased during ascent. Most cases of flyer’s toothache occur at a height of 9,000 feet or above and a depth of 30 feet or below. While air pockets are not normally present within the teeth, they can occur below fillings, in cracked teeth, below areas of decay, and if an abscess is present at the tip of the tooth root. Simply stated, experiencing tooth pain while flying or diving is considered to be a dental symptom of an underlying problem. 

Woman with toothache on plane

While tooth pain while flying or diving may occur as a result of the aforementioned dental problems, it can also be associated with sinusitis or barotrauma. Sinusitis is the inflammation of the tissue within the sinus cavities and may be to blame if the tooth pain originates in the top of the mouth. Barotrauma is when the change in pressure actually causes damage to the tooth. This can occur in cases where the void containing an air pocket cannot expand or contract to balance the pressure. This can result in a dislodged filling or a fractured tooth. 

Although a flyer’s toothache does affect many people, it is still important to be aware of in case you are affected. To prevent the risk of developing tooth pain while flying or diving, many dentists recommend having necessary dental work completed at least three days prior to any flight or dive. Additionally, if you are a frequent flyer or diver and you continuously experience tooth pain, it is time to make an appointment with your dentist. Especially in cases where the pain continues once you’ve reached ground level. 

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Dr. Stephen Clark graduated from Northwestern Dental School in 1969 and earned his California Dental License in 1970. During his over 50 years serving the Long Beach area, he has provided effective dental care to many citizens.