Dental Emergencies: What to Do When You Can’t See the Dentist Immediately

Dental emergencies don’t operate according to business hours, and it seems they always happen after your dentist goes home for the day, right? At what point does your emergency reach the level of calling your dentist after hours or on the weekend? What to do? 

Some situations are indeed more urgent than others. But, knowing what those are is sometimes confusing. Most people hesitate to call their dentist outside of business hours, so we offer this information to distinguish which instances are true emergencies and what to do in the meantime.

What Is a True Dental Emergency?

According to the American Dental Association, dental emergencies are those events that are “potentially life-threatening and requir[ing] immediate treatment to stop ongoing tissue bleeding [or to] alleviate severe pain or infection.” So, if you or a loved one are experiencing severe pain, uncontrolled bleeding or swelling, or have a fever, don’t wait. Call your dentist or go to the nearest emergency room. It’s better to be overly cautious rather than wait and face dire results due to lack of care.

Here are some dental emergencies that can often be life-threatening:

  • Uncontrolled bleeding from trauma, accident, health condition, or other causes.
  • Soft-tissue infections with swelling that potentially compromise the patient’s airway. (It’s important to know that tooth infections can cause swelling without causing pain.) 
  • Trauma involving facial bones. These can affect the patient’s airway.

Here are some other dental emergencies that may not be life-threatening but require urgent care: 

  • Severe tooth pain from decay or dying pulp.
  • Third molar/wisdom tooth pain.
  • Pain from post-extraction surgery or dry sockets.
  • Abscesses or other infections causing pain and localized swelling.
  • Objects caught under the gums or between teeth causing pain or swelling.
  • Tooth chips, fractures, or lost fillings causing pain or trauma to the teeth, soft tissues, or both.
  • Trauma to the teeth causing one or more teeth to become loose, displaced, or totally come out.
  • Orthodontic wires or other dental appliances becoming loose and cutting into the cheeks, gums, or both.

Common Causes of Dental Emergencies

There are two main categories of dental emergencies: The first are oral conditions that worsen and become emergencies over time and the second are situations that in daily life result in emergencies quickly and without warning.

Tooth decay, gum disease, old fillings that fail, and TMD disorders are examples of the first category. Patients are usually aware that one of these situations will cause a problem at some point but haven’t addressed it yet. Then, an old filling falls out, their gums start to bleed, or they can’t fully open their mouth and an emergency arises.

Examples of the second category, sudden onset emergencies, are:

  • Playing contact sports
  • Work-related accidents
  • Car accidents
  • Falls during normal activities or recreational play 
  • Eating something hard
  • Improper use of your teeth (e.g. ice chewing; opening bottles or packages; crunching on tough nuts; cutting tape; chewing pencils/pens; biting nails)
  • Jaw joint pain or locking

What To Do In Case Of A Dental Emergency

Let’s get to specifics. Here are some immediate steps for dental emergencies:

Toothache or Tooth Pain

Some instances of tooth pain are more urgent than others, but they should all be taken seriously. Pain or discomfort in a tooth might be signaling a bigger issue. If ignored, pain can lead to larger, more expensive problems. Sources of toothache or tooth pain might be decay in one or more teeth, a cracked tooth, infected tooth pulp, gum disease, or sinus infections. 

Try these tips to deal with toothache:

  • Floss carefully to remove food particles wedged between teeth that can cause pain.
  • Rinse your mouth with warm saltwater. Add 1/2 tsp of salt to 8 oz. of warm water. (Make sure not to swallow the saltwater.)
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen. 
  • Don’t put aspirin on the sore area, as it can burn the tissue. (Due to the acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin.)
  • For swelling, place a cold compress on your cheek. Keep in mind that swelling can mean infection and abscess. 

If the pain persists after trying some of these tips, contact your dentist. We will determine if it is an emergency or not.

Tooth Trauma

A strong blow to the mouth can chip or crack teeth, or even knock a tooth out of its socket. In general, make sure to put pressure on the area if there is bleeding. Here are some specific for each of these scenarios of tooth trauma:

If a Tooth is Knocked Out

Follow these steps if a permanent tooth is knocked out:

  • Locate the tooth immediately, if possible. Pick it up and hold it by the crown, not by the root. 
  • Don’t try to clean the tooth or dry it off (it needs to stay as moist as possible). 
  • If possible, gently place the tooth back into its socket and bite down on a piece of gauze to hold it in place. If you can’t insert it back in the tooth socket, slip it into your mouth next to your cheek. Or, place the tooth in a clean container of milk, saliva, or an emergency tooth preservation solution. Do not place the tooth in tap water. 
  • See your dentist right away. The tooth might be saved if you see the dentist within 30 minutes to an hour. 

For children’s teeth, do not put the tooth back into the socket. You can damage the underlying permanent tooth, so just take the tooth with you to the dentist as outlined for permanent teeth.

For Chipped, Broken, or Cracked Teeth

This is one of the most common injuries and the faster treatment happens, the less chance of infection. 

Here are some tips to follow for chipped or cracked teeth:

  • Rinse your mouth with warm water and check for rough edges, pain, or temperature sensitivity. 
  • Use cold compresses on your face to reduce swelling.
  • Call your dentist’s office and ask for advice and assistance. 
  • If you go to the dentist’s office, take any pieces of the tooth you can find. 

Bitten or Cut Tongue, Cheek, or Lip

A cut or bite on the tongue, cheek, or lip bleeds a lot. It will look worse than it usually is, so don’t panic. Wash the area gently and place moist gauze or a clean, damp towel on the damaged area. Apply firm pressure until the bleeding stops. Then place a cold compress (or even a bag of frozen veggies) on the injured area. This will reduce swelling. 

Keep the area clean to prevent infection. Rinse with salt water or hydrogen peroxide mixed with water a few times a day to promote healing. Most of these injuries aren’t serious and will heal on their own.

Here are some guidelines for seeking help:

  • The bleeding won’t stop.
  • The cut is deep.
  • A puncture goes through the lip or cheek.
  • There are signs of infection: swelling, redness, fever, pus, or persistent pain.

Dental Emergencies Require a Team Effort & We’ve Got You Covered

Like any emergency, knowing when to call for help can be difficult. The most important thing to remember is when in doubt, call your dentist and ask for advice. It is better to be cautious than allow an injury to worsen simply because you didn’t seek help. In the meantime, tend to the injury using the tips we’ve covered in this article. 

Here at TLC Dental Center, we vow to provide top-tier dental care for both emergencies and non-emergencies. Our team uses skill, patience, care, consideration, and compassion when caring for our patients, no matter the situation. 

Keep our contact information handy for all your dental care needs!