Medically reviewed by Dr. Eisen

What is Emergency Dental Care?

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Dental emergencies are more common than you might think. According to the experts, these cases are on the rise. Data gathered between 2000 and 2010 revealed that emergency room visits for severe dental pain have doubled from 1.1 million to 2.1 million and that the trend is on a steady upward trend.

There are a number of reasons why you might find yourself rushing to see a dentist. But when can you consider something an emergency, and when should you sit back and schedule an appointment? Here’s everything you need to know about dental emergencies .

Table of contents:

What is Considered a Dental Emergency?

Most of those who step into a dental clinic go there for cosmetic or restorative procedures. Missing, crooked, or even broken teeth aren’t necessarily an emergency, since an individual may be able to eat, speak, and function just fine with these minor dental issues.

Similar to a medical emergency, dental emergencies require prompt resolution to prevent potentially dangerous consequences. For this reason, some clinics provide 24-hour emergency dentists that can meet patients any time of the day -- even during odd hours.

Types of Dental Emergencies

While dental or oral pain might have you feeling uncomfortable throughout the day, pain doesn’t instantly warrant an emergency dental visit. Here are some of the most common dental emergencies that could require prompt professional attention:

  • Accidentally losing a tooth - If the tooth was removed whole, then a trip to the dentist might be able to help save the tooth. Waiting even a few hours could cause changes in the gum structure and prevent the tooth being put back.
  • Severe pain - Pain is your body’s way of alerting you that there’s something wrong. While dental problems tend to increase in pain severity over time, acute, severe pain can be a sign of something much more serious, requiring a trip to the dentist’s office.
  • Profuse bleeding - Although it is normal to experience some bleeding now and again, especially if you have sensitive gums, profuse bleeding could indicate a serious problem. Visit your dentist if you experience profuse or non-stop bleeding.
  • Infections - Infections in the mouth can be especially dangerous because of their proximity to the brain. If untreated, a dental or oral infection could become life-threatening. Addressing the problem early on should help prevent severe complications.

What Isn’t a Dental Emergency?

It’s important to draw the line somewhere. While some dentists provide round the clock services for those who might need emergency care at odd hours throughout the day, doesn’t mean you should rush to the clinic for every little thing. Here are some instances when you might be able to hold off a visit to the dentist’s office until a more convenient time:

  • Mild to moderate toothache - It’s normal for people to experience tooth pain every now and then. If you’re not in severe pain, there are no signs of infection, you’re not running a fever, and you can still eat and talk without too much difficulty, it should be okay to schedule an appointment at your dentist’s soonest availability.
  • Broken teeth - A chipped or broken tooth shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Restorative dental work is rarely an emergency (unless as stated above, you lose a whole tooth and want to put it back.) If you chip or break a tooth, there should be no need to rush, especially if there’s no pain or excessive bleeding.
  • Lost or broken crown or filling - No restorative appliance that makes direct contact with other teeth and food will last forever. If you have the piece that fell out, you might be able to do a patch job by buying over-the-counter dental cement. That should keep it in place until your next dental appointment.

What to Do During a Dental Emergency

Of course, a visit to your dentist as soon as possible would be a must for a dental emergency. But are there any things you can do to improve your chances at a successful recovery or to keep a lid on the pain until you get there? Here are some tips.

For a Lost or Broken Tooth:

  1. Pick up the tooth - Make sure you handle the tooth by the crown. The root is covered in cells that can’t tolerate certain environments, so it’s best to limit exposure to any foreign contaminants.
  2. Rinse it off - If there’s any debris or dirt on your tooth, rinse it off with cool, clean, running water. Avoid scrubbing the tooth or rubbing its surface with anything other than your fingers. The tooth must be moist at all times; do not attempt to dry it.
  3. Put it back - If the place in your gums isn’t too sore, you can try to put the tooth back in its socket. If there’s too much pain or bleeding, or if there are signs of infection, you can simply keep the tooth in the opposite side of your mouth. Others say that you can place the tooth in a glass of milk, but that you should never soak it in water.

For Severe Pain:

  1. Cold compress - Grab an ice pack, or stuff a few ice cubes into a small towel and place them against your cheeks, outside the site of the pain. This should provide temporary relief while you travel to your dentist’s clinic.
  2. Pain killers - If you have ibuprofen or paracetamol in handy, take a dose to keep the pain at bay. Keep in mind that it isn’t recommended to provide these medications to children below 16 years of age.
  3. Salt water rinse - Toothaches caused by abscess or an infection can be temporarily soothed by a salt water rinse. Dilute a tablespoon of rock salt in a glass of warm water and gargle in the area of the pain.
  4. Pain relief gel - Pharmacies often sell dental pain relief gel that you can rub on a tooth for fast acting pain relief. If you have this on hand, then you should be able to use it to keep the discomfort at bay until you get to your dentist.

Keep in mind that if you have to travel out of the way for any of these solutions, it might not be a good idea. Use over-the-counter products only if you already have them. If you have to stop by a pharmacy to buy them, you might defeat the purpose of going on an emergency visit to the dentist.

For Infections:

There are certain signs that tell you whether you’re dealing with simple pain, or a potential infection. Some of these include:

  • Fever
  • Swelling in the face or cheek
  • Presence of abscess
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes under the jaw, along the neck
  • Difficulty chewing and eating
  • Pain that radiates to the ear, jaw, or neck
  • Bad taste in the mouth
  • Worsening symptoms when lying down

For most people, the obvious solution for an infection would be to take antibiotics. But the problem is that antibiotics are not an immediate solution and take weeks to completely eradicate infection.

Another potential danger is antibiotic resistance which occurs when individuals self-medicate with the wrong time of medication at the wrong dose. So, for a painful infection, it’s best to soothe the pain by following the same steps as above. Avoid taking antibiotics without the prescription of your emergency dentist.

How to Avoid Dental Emergencies

Emergency dental clinics are like fire extinguishers -- you hope you’ll never have to use one, but they’re nice to have around nonetheless. If you want to avoid an unscheduled trip to your dental professional, it helps to follow these tips:

Practice Proper Oral Hygiene

Dental experts state that it’s important to brush your teeth twice a day with a soft bristle brush. Take your time whenever you do and try not to apply too much pressure. According to the specialists, it should take you no less than two minutes to finish brushing. Flossing is also part of a good oral hygiene routine. Experts explain that adults should floss at least once a day to help keep teeth clean and to keep the gums healthy.

Get a Routine Check-Up

The rule of thumb is that you should visit your dentist once every six months. This just helps make sure they can keep your teeth and gums in proper condition and prevent any potential damages from happening. These preventive visits can save you loads in operations and dental services down the line that could have been avoided if your dentist had seen them before they got worse.

Keep an Eye on Your Teeth

Things can happen during those six months between dentist appointments. Make sure you keep an eye on your teeth during this time and observe any potential changes or signs that warrant a dental appointment. Most often, pain from unseen damage or infection will increase gradually. So, schedule a visit the first day you note discomfort.

Wear a Protective Guard During Sports

No amount of tooth brushing will protect your teeth from trauma. Getting hit while playing sports or engaging other physical activities can cause you to lose a tooth. Fortunately, you can always just wear a mouthguard to cushion any hits and prevent damage to your teeth.

Eat a Proper Diet

Too much sugar can erode the enamel of your teeth. Sugars can increase the acidity in your mouth since they provide food for the bacteria that naturally lives in your oral cavity. This acid then attacks the enamel which causes weakness by breaking down essential minerals. Your teeth may become brittle over time because of this, making them easier to damage.

FAQs on Dental Emergencies

What is considered a dental emergency during the pandemic?

These days when people are told to avoid going outdoors unless it’s absolutely necessary, it may be confusing to determine what really calls for an emergency trip to the dental clinic. But for clarification, all of the dental emergencies stated above warrant a trip to the dentist even during the pandemic.

These conditions put your health in immediate danger, and must be addressed promptly to prevent further complications. If you’re experiencing anything other than the emergencies stated above, make sure you call in to book an appointment.

Is a cavity a dental emergency?

In certain cases, yes, a cavity can be a dental emergency. If the tooth decay or cavity reaches the tooth’s pulp, it can cause severe pain and infection. A cavity that’s been left to develop for too long can make your tooth brittle, causing damage and further complications down the line. Make sure to set an appointment the moment you see a cavity, otherwise you might find yourself in an emergency situation.

What helps unbearable tooth pain?

There is a plethora of home remedies for tooth aches, but most of them don’t have sufficient scientific evidence to support their claims. That said, the best way to soothe an aching tooth would be to use a cold compress. Pressing it against your cheek, just outside the tooth can help numb the pain.

A saline rinse can also keep bacteria at bay, which may be helpful if your tooth is developing an infection. And then of course, pain medications and pain gel can help reduce the feeling of discomfort while you wait to arrive at the emergency dental care center.

Timely Care Just When You Need It

An emergency dental situation is no laughing matter. With some conditions causing severe pain and even risking expensive, life-threatening complications, there’s really no point in waiting. Fortunately, emergency dentists are available to provide prompt care, alleviate pain, and prevent further damage with 24-hour services.

Another thing to remember is that you have the ability to prevent emergencies all together. Proper oral care, diet, and regular visits to your dentist can help keep your teeth in top condition to protect against infections, weakness, and damage. Schedule a visit with our expert dentists today and curb the risk of a dental emergency.

Andrea Galick

Andrea Galick is an accomplished Dental Hygienist (RDH) with a passion for helping patients achieve optimal oral health. Andrea has built a reputation as a caring and skilled practitioner who puts her patients at ease and provides individualized care that meets their unique needs.

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