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Don't wait: What to do in a dental emergency

Posted June 24, 2019 5:00 a.m. EDT

Pain or sudden sensitivity to hot or cold drinks can be a sign that something is wrong. Addressing minor gum infections and cavities early on can prevent more serious conditions down the road. (Aaron Amat/Big Stock Photo)

This story was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Dental Society.

If your tooth is throbbing and nothing seems to ease the pain, or your child comes to you with a cracked tooth after a soccer game, you don't want to be scrambling for a solution.

Your smile is one of the first things people notice when they look at you. Don't risk it by being unprepared when a dental emergency happens. Know what constitutes a dental emergency and what to do should you be faced with one.

What is considered a dental emergency?

Tooth fractures and serious oral infections are typically considered dental emergencies, but there are other issues that are urgent enough to require a last-minute visit to the dentist.

Pain or sudden sensitivity to hot or cold drinks can be a sign that something is wrong, for example. Addressing minor gum infections and cavities early on can prevent more serious conditions down the road.

Don't procrastinate and wait for a root canal when an early visit to the dentist could lead to a much simpler and less painful solution now. Accidents happen, and most dentists leave openings in their schedules each day for patient emergencies.

"The best thing you can do in a dental emergency is to call your dentist," said Dr. Ji Lim, a dentist at James D. Bernstein Dental Services in Greenville. "And don't panic. Depending on the type of dental emergency, there are often ways you can alleviate the pain or help increase your chances of saving a tooth if handled properly."

Types of dental emergencies & tips to handle them

If a dental emergency occurs, always call your dentist and let them know as much as possible about the issue. Make an appointment as soon as you can after the injury and follow the steps below for your particular situation.

1. Knocked out teeth

If a permanent tooth has been knocked out, your dentist may be able to save it, but you will need to preserve the tooth by keeping it moist until you can see your dentist. There are a few ways to do this:

  • If you can avoid touching the root, try placing the tooth back in its original socket. Hold it by the crown, rinse it (don't scrub), and put it back in the same position it was in, but do not force it.
  • Use an ADA-accepted tooth preservation product. These products contain a cell growth medium that helps increase the survival rate of knocked out teeth for up to 24 hours, but they work best if the tooth is replanted within an hour by a dentist.
  • Keep it in milk, or in water with a bit of table salt if milk isn't accessible.
  • Place it between your cheek and gums.

If a baby tooth has been knocked out, follow the same preservation steps. Your dentist will be able to determine whether it can be implanted again.

2. Chipped or cracked teeth

If a tooth has been chipped or cracked, rinse it out right away with warm water to clean the area.

If you notice swelling, place a cold compress on the area of the face around the injured tooth.

3. Toothaches and stuck objects

For toothaches or objects stuck in teeth, rinse with warm water and try to gently remove any food caught between the teeth with dental floss.

Do not use sharp instruments to attempt to remove it as they can scratch the gums or tooth surface.

Do not put aspirin on any aching teeth or gums as the aspirin can cause the gum tissue to burn. Be on the lookout for infection.

4. Bites

For bites on the tongue or lip, gently cleanse the area with water and apply a cold compress.

If you are traveling or don't have a dentist in your contacts, the North Carolina Dental Society has a tool to help you find a local practitioner.

If you cannot see your dentist and you are in pain or bleeding excessively, consider going to the emergency room.

How to prevent dental accidents

Sometimes the simplest act of chewing can lead to tooth fracture or chipping. Avoid chomping down on anything especially hard, such as ice, popcorn kernels or hard candy.

Playing contact sports can also be risky for teeth. The best way to prevent traumatic dental injuries is to wear a custom-fitted mouth guard when playing. Even wearing a standard mouth guard for recreational activities and sports can help prevent dental injuries.

Remember, teeth are not meant to be tools for anything more than chewing. Never use your teeth to cut anything.

Stubborn bag or tag hanging from your clothing? Grab the scissors.

"Teeth are surprisingly strong, but not indestructible. Even if you take great care of your teeth, you are likely to experience a dental emergency at some point," Lim said. "Building a relationship with a dentist … now will help make any dental emergency less stressful in the future."

This story was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Dental Society.