Dealing with Dental Emergencies: A Quick Guide to What to Do

You wake up with a sharp pain in your mouth, but you can’t tell where it’s coming from. After taking some over-the-counter pain medication, the pain hasn’t lessened at all. You’re wondering if this has anything to do with your recent dental cleaning, but you have no way of determining that yourself. What to do?

Dental emergencies vary from urgent to simply bothersome and most people don’t want to over-react by calling their dentist for minor issues. But it’s hard to know when a situation is a true dental emergency. 

We will dig deeper into this issue as we list those situations that dentists consider an emergency, break down what causes those issues, and give you some tips on how to handle a dental emergency.


Dental Emergencies Defined

The American Dental Association says a dental emergency is a “potentially life-threatening [situation] and requires immediate treatment to stop ongoing tissue bleeding or to alleviate severe pain or infection.”

A “life-threatening dental emergency” is:

  • Bleeding that can’t be stopped, whatever the reason.
  • Soft-tissue infections with swelling that could affect the airway. (Be aware that tooth infections can swell without causing pain, also.) 
  • Trauma to the face that compromises your airway.


Some dental emergencies aren’t life-threatening but still require urgent care, such as:

  • Severe tooth pain from decay. 
  • Wisdom tooth pain.
  • Pain after surgery to remove a tooth. 
  • Infections that cause pain or swelling.
  • Objects caught under the gums or between teeth causing pain or swelling.
  • Pain from chipped teeth, tooth fractures, or lost fillings.
  • Loose, lost, or displaced teeth caused by trauma to the face or jaw. 
  • Orthodontic wires or other dental appliances that become loose or begin cutting into the gums or cheeks.

Always err on the side of caution if you aren’t sure your situation is an emergency. Pain, fever, swelling, or bleeding must be addressed quickly. Contact your dentist or go to the nearest ER.  

Causes of Dental Emergencies

Most dental emergencies relate to tooth decay, TMD, gum disease, and deterioration of large, old fillings. The longer these issues are not treated, the more they are likely to lead to a dental emergency. 

Many daily situations can also lead to dental emergencies. Some examples are:

  • Trauma resulting from contact sports
  • On-the-job accidents
  • Auto accidents
  • Falls 
  • Eating 
  • Using teeth improperly (ie. chewing ice, biting nails, opening bottles, chewing pens/pencils, tearing items with teeth) 

Regardless of the cause, what should you do when an emergency happens?


What To Do For Dental Emergencies

Check out these tips for exactly what to do in the event of some common dental emergencies: 


It’s difficult for you to know why your tooth is aching. It may indicate something simple, like food stuck between the teeth, but it could be more serious than that. A toothache may result from an infected tooth, sensitivity, gum disease, or even a sinus infection. Contact your dentist and ask for assistance.

In the meantime, try the following tips to deal with the pain:

  • Carefully try to remove any trapped food particles wedged between teeth by flossing
  • Add 1/2 tsp of salt to 8 oz. of warm water and rinse your mouth with warm saltwater. 
  • Take your regular over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, such as acetaminophen. 
  • Do not hold aspirin directly on the sore area; it can burn the tissue.
  • To deal with pain and swelling, put a cold compress on your cheek. Swelling can mean infection and abscess.
  • Call your dentist. 


Tooth Trauma

Several kinds of tooth trauma are common:

Knocked-Out Tooth

For a child’s primary tooth, put pressure on any bleeding and call your child’s dentist. Keep the tooth but don’t try to put it back into the socket. This can lead to damage to the permanent tooth underneath the primary tooth.

For a permanent tooth, do the following:

  • Locate the tooth immediately, if possible. Avoid touching the tooth’s root; touch only the enamel crown. 
  • Do not scrub or remove any tissue from the root.
  • Do not try to clean the tooth with soap or chemicals.
  • Don’t dry the tooth.
  • Put the tooth back into its socket and hold it there, making sure to keep the tooth moist. 
  • If you can’t place the tooth back into its socket, keep it in your mouth next to your cheek. Or get a clean container and fill it with milk, saliva, or a tooth preservation solution (e.g. Save a tooth®). Do not use tap water. 
  • See your dentist right away. You have the best chance of saving the tooth if you can get to your dentist within 30 – 60 minutes. 


Chipped or Broken Teeth 

Cracked, chipped, or broken teeth are some of the most common dental injuries. Most aren’t serious but can become infected if not treated immediately.

In the event of a chipped, cracked, or broken tooth:

  • Rinse your mouth with warm water and check the tooth for rough edges, pain, or temperature sensitivity. 
  • If you were hit in the face, put a cold compress on your face to reduce swelling.
  • If you broke a tooth, try to find the pieces that broke off. Take them with you to the dentist or ER. 
  • See your dentist as soon as possible.  


Bitten or Cut Tongue, Cheek, or Lip

This is a common occurrence and it usually looks worse than it is! There are many blood vessels in the mouth, so even minor wounds will bleed profusely. 

Place a moist towel on the cut and put firm pressure until the bleeding stops. Then, cover the area with a cold compress. This will reduce swelling. Rinse with salt water or a one-to-one mix of hydrogen peroxide and water to clean the area and avoid infection. 

If you can’t stop the bleeding or the wound is a puncture through the lip or cheek, call your doctor or dentist or go to the nearest emergency room or critical care center.

In the case of orthodontics, if a loose wire or bracket from braces is causing you pain or has caused a cut, call your dentist/orthodontist for advice. You can purchase orthodontic wax at your drugstore. Place a small piece of wax over the bracket or wire that is broken or loose until you can see your dentist.

We Can Help You Manage Dental Emergencies

It’s best to seek assistance in a dental emergency, especially if you’re not sure how to handle it. Minor things, like a toothache or scraped mouth tissue from braces, aren’t difficult to care for yourself. But, if you have any doubt, call your dentist or go to the nearest critical care center or ER. 

Our team here at Wilmington Dental Associates is your trusted partner for all things dental. Including making sure you have all of the information and assistance you need to confidently handle a dental emergency if one ever arises. Contact us today with any questions you may have or to schedule an appointment!

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