By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Most dental problems respond well to a take-it-slow approach. Brushing, flossing, and dental appointments every six months will take you far. But every once in awhile, the mouth can become an emergency. Without immediate treatment, a problem with your teeth or gums could quickly become a major threat to your overall health.
How do you know if you're facing a dental emergency? Here are some common examples.
Severe pain in a tooth or jaw. You probably already know what a minor toothache feels like. That toothache is a good reason to make an appointment with a dentist, but it's not an emergency. If the pain reaches extreme levels, however, you need to get help fast. Among other possibilities, you could have an infection that requires antibiotics.
Bleeding that won't stop. Lots of people bleed a little after brushing or flossing. It's a classic sign of gingivitis, a very common condition. But if your mouth is bleeding and it won't stop even after you've applied pressure, you may have a deep wound that requires emergency treatment. Use a gauze or compress to control the bleeding as much as possible until you can get help.
Broken tooth. You can wait on a cracked or chipped tooth as long as it isn't causing pain. But if a fracture goes deep enough to reach the sensitive pulp of a tooth, the pain will be a sign that you need to see a dentist as soon as possible. Without treatment, the pulp could die, possibly leading to serious infection and major root canal surgery.
Knocked out tooth. Obviously, a knocked out tooth needs to get fixed right away. If you lose a tooth, find it immediately. Touching only the white crown and not the fleshy root, rinse the tooth with water. Then either place it between or cheek and gum or put it in a glass of milk. The sooner you can get to a dentist, the better the chances that the tooth can be replaced.
Here are some other red flags for a possible dental emergency:
- Facial swelling
- Isolated bleeding from a particular area of the mouth
- Obvious pus from infection around the gum area
- Difficulty breathing
If you have facial swelling and are having difficulty breathing, call 911 or get to an emergency room right away.
Minor emergencies: When to see a dentist promptly
Some dental problems don't really qualify as full-blown emergencies, but you'd still want to see a dentist sooner rather than later.
Foreign objects lodged between the teeth. You can often dislodge a piece of food or other material with gentle flossing. (Don't go digging in there with a needle or knife; you could easily do more damage.) But if you can't get it out, you'll need to get to a dentist soon.
A lost or broken filling: Although it can be alarming to have a filling pop off in your mouth, it usually isn't a major emergency. You can buy a temporary filling at a drug store to hold you over until you can get to a dentist. An over-the counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen can help you feel more comfortable while you wait.
American Dental Association. Dental Emergencies. http://www.ada.org/370.aspx
Sports Dentistry Online. Sports Dentistry Facts. http://www.sportsdentistry.com/facts.html
NetDoctor. Dental Injuries. 2005. http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/diseases/facts/dentalinjuries.htm
Seattle Children's Hospital, Research, and Foundation. Tooth Injury. January 2010. http://www.seattlechildrens.org/medical-conditions/symptom-index/tooth-injury/