New Guideline for Managing Toothache in Kids

Jake Remaly

August 31, 2023

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, or both medications together can effectively manage a child's toothache as a stopgap until definitive treatment is available, according to a new guideline.

The guideline, published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association, does not recommend opioids for a toothache or after tooth extraction in this population.

Opioid prescriptions for children entail risk for hospitalization and death. Yet, some dentists continued to prescribe contraindicated opioids to young children after a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning in 2017 about the use of tramadol and codeine in this population, the guideline notes.

Opioid prescribing to children also continued after the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry in 2018 recommended acetaminophen and NSAIDs as first-line medications for pain management and said that the use of opioids should be "rare."

Although the new guidance, which also covers pain management after tooth extraction, is geared toward general dentists, it could help emergency clinicians and primary care providers manage children's pain when definitive treatment is not immediately available, the authors note.

Definitive treatment could include pulpectomy, nonsurgical root canal, incision for drainage of an abscess, or tooth extraction.

If definitive care in 2-3 days is not possible, parents should let the healthcare team know, the guideline says.

"These pharmacologic strategies will alleviate dental pain temporarily until a referral for definitive dental treatment is in place," the authors write.

The American Dental Association (ADA) endorsed the new guideline, which was developed by researchers with the ADA Science & Research Institute, the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, and the Center for Integrative Global Oral Health at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine in Philadelphia.

The guideline recommends ibuprofen and, for children older than 2 years, naproxen as NSAID options. The use of naproxen in children younger than 12 years for this purpose is off label, they note.

The guideline suggests doses of acetaminophen and NSAIDs on the basis of age and weight that may differ from those on medication packaging.

"When acetaminophen or NSAIDs are administered as directed, the risk of harm to children from either medication is low," the guideline states.

"While prescribing opioids to children has become less frequent overall, this guideline ensures that both dentists and parents have evidence-based recommendations to determine the most appropriate treatment for dental pain," senior guideline author Paul Moore, DMD, PhD, MPH, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Dental Medicine, said in a news release from the ADA. "Parents and caregivers can take comfort that widely available medications that have no abuse potential, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, are safe and effective for helping their children find relief from short-term dental pain."

A 2018 review by Moore and co-authors found that NSAIDs, with or without acetaminophen, were effective and minimized adverse events, relative to opioids, for acute dental pain across ages.

The new recommendations for children will "allow for better treatment of this kind of pain" and "will help prevent unnecessary prescribing of medications with abuse potential, including opioids," Patrizia Cavazzoni, MD, director of the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in the news release.

The report stems from a 3-year, $1.5 million grant awarded by the FDA in 2020 to the University of Pittsburgh and the ADA Science & Research Institute to develop a clinical practice guideline for the management of acute pain in dentistry in children, adolescents, and adults. The recommendations for adolescents and adults are still in development.

The report was supported by an FDA grant, and the guideline authors received technical and methodologic support from the agency. Some authors disclosed ties to pharmaceutical companies.

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