Published: 05/09/2024
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Facing dental emergencies can not only be painful but extremely stressful as well. Especially if it occurs on a weekend or during non-office hours. What to do? Whether you’re dealing with an excruciating toothache, knocked out a tooth during a pick-up game gone wrong, or lost a filling during dinner, dental emergencies can disrupt your plans. And, if you or a loved one are in a lot of pain, it can be hard to make the right decision in the moment.

Let’s take a few minutes to explore the most common dental emergencies and provide practical tips on how to manage them most effectively, even if it happens during off hours or on the weekend. From finding emergency dental services to knowing when to take a trip to the ER, we’ll help you navigate dental emergencies like a pro.

Common Dental Emergencies and How to Deal

No matter what your emergency is, it’s worth it to make a plan for how to deal with these types of situations during normal dental office hours as well as when your regular dentist isn’t available.

Here are some of the most common reasons for a dental emergency and what to do.

  • Terrible Toothache: Toothaches are often started by underlying issues, like an abscess, infection, or decay, and they can lead to severe, persistent pain.

    If you have a toothache, start by rinsing your mouth out with warm water. Then, use dental floss or a water flosser to gently remove any trapped food particles. You may also want to take an over-the-counter pain reliever (like ibuprofen) to help take some of the pain and swelling down. Contact your regular dentist to make an appointment as soon as possible to drill down to the cause and find the correct solution.

  • Chipped or Broken Tooth: Whether you tripped and landed face first, your kid came crying to you off the field, or your partner bit into something hard, a chipped or broken tooth is concerning. The first step is to find and save any broken pieces of the tooth. Then, you’ll want to rinse out your mouth with warm water. If you are bleeding, apply gauze to help stop the flow. Finally, contact your dentist immediately for treatment, as a broken tooth can lead to severe pain, especially if the nerves are exposed.

  • Loose Tooth: If the fall only made your tooth loose, even though it can be tempting, you’ll want to avoid wiggling or touching it. Contact your dentist to get an appointment as soon as possible, as once you’re an adult, a loose tooth may indicate something more serious, such as trauma or infection.

    Your dentist will be able to evaluate the surrounding gum and bone tissue and recommend treatment to avoid further damage. For instance, if there are signs of infection, they may deeply clean the area and then prescribe antibiotics or other treatments. Or, they may “splint” the tooth to neighboring teeth using adhesive or wire to allow the area to heal. Or they may extract the tooth if it can’t be saved, especially if it risks the surrounding teeth.

  • Knocked-Out Tooth: Again, you’ll want to find the lost tooth. Remember, however, to only pick it up by the crown and avoid touching the root. Gently rinse the tooth, especially if it landed in the dirt. Make sure you don’t scrub or remove any tissue that’s attached to the tooth.

    Next, try to reinsert the tooth into the socket if possible. Once it’s inserted, hold it gently in place by biting on some gauze or a clean cloth.

    If you are unable to reinsert the tooth, keep the tooth damp by placing it in milk if possible. (There are also tooth preservation products designed for this purpose. You may not find them in your typical first-aid kit, but if you are concerned, you can often pick one up from a local pharmacy, sports or outdoor retailer, or from your dental office to add to your kit.)

    Whether you’re able to reinsert the tooth or not, you’ll still want to seek emergency dental care immediately—preferably within 30 minutes. Sadly, the chances of saving a tooth decrease with time. With immediate dental attention, though, you may be able to save the tooth.

  • Lost Filling or Crown: Losing a filling or a crown can expose sensitive areas of the tooth. This can not only be painful; it can potentially lead to more damage if left untreated. So, start by keeping your mouth clean by gently brushing and rinsing with warm saltwater. Avoid chewing on the affected side. And then, contact your dentist to make an appointment to fix or replace the crown.

  • Abscesses: One of the most painful dental emergencies is an abscess or severe infection in the root of a tooth or between the tooth and gum. An abscess causes swelling (sometimes of the entire face), pain, and sometimes a fever as your body battles the infection.

    Start by gently rinsing your mouth out with a mild saltwater solution. This can help relieve pain and draw out some of the infection. But you will want to contact your dentist immediately as an untreated abscess can lead to serious complications and a lot of pain.

  • Objects Lodged Between Teeth: Another cause of tooth discomfort is if something gets stuck between the teeth. Trying to remove the offending object by flossing is the first step. However, avoid using any sharp objects as that could lead to cuts or damage to your teeth, gums, or other soft tissue in the mouth.

    If you are unable to remove the offending object from between the teeth, reach out to your dental team for assistance.
  • Soft Tissue Injuries: If you’ve injured the lips, cheeks, gums, or tongue, it can cause swelling, pain, and even bleeding. If you are bleeding, apply pressure or gauze to control the bleeding. Once the bleeding is under control, rinse out your mouth with a mild saltwater solution to help prevent infection. If it’s severe or doesn’t stop, seek immediate emergency attention.
  • Orthodontic Emergencies: People who use corrective braces or other appliances can experience broken wires or brackets, leading to discomfort. To keep your progress on track, you’ll want to get in with your orthodontist as soon as possible to help repair the damage. If you can’t get in right away, you may be able to use orthodontic wax and cover the surface of any pokey wires to help reduce discomfort until your appointment.
  • Jaw Pain or Injury: Trauma to the jaw, such as a fracture or dislocation, can be intensely painful. It can also make it difficult to speak or chew. If injured, immediately apply a cold compress to reduce the pain and swelling. And then seek urgent medical attention, especially if you suspect you may have fractured or dislocated your jaw.

No matter what the dental emergency is, prompt treatment is crucial to help prevent further damage, bring pain to more manageable levels, and achieve the best outcome possible.

Dental Emergencies During Off-Hours

It often feels like emergencies only happen when everything is closed. If you have a dental emergency over the weekend or when your regular dentist is unavailable, you have several options to ensure prompt treatment.  

Many areas have emergency dental clinics or practices that offer weekend hours and emergency services. Search online for your location to see if there’s one near you.

If you are unable to find a dentist, in some cases, urgent care centers have dentists or staff available who can provide basic dental services. It’s best, however, to call ahead and make sure they can handle your specific emergency.

You may also be able to find a dental hotline or telemedicine option staffed by dental professionals who can provide advice and guidance for your specific dental emergency. While this may not replace in-person care, it can be comforting to have the advice and support during an emergency.

If the dental emergency is severe and involves significant pain, trauma, or swelling—especially if there are signs of a spreading infection or if it’s affecting your breathing, it’s time for a trip to the nearest emergency room. They may not have dental specialists on site, but they can provide pain relief and help address any immediate concerns.

During any dental emergency, err on the side of caution and seek professional care promptly. Putting off treatment can lead to worsening of pain, complications, and potentially more extensive (and expensive) treatments in the future.

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