If you or someone you care about has got a bad toothache or has suffered some form of trauma that has affected their teeth, remaining calm can be difficult. In particular, working out whether emergency dental attention is needed may be a challenge.
We have created this guide so that our patients have the information they need to decide whether emergency dental treatment is needed or not.
Detailed below are examples of situations where prompt dental attention is important, as well as conditions which can often be effectively managed at home, at least in the short-term. This information should give you the facts you need to decide whether to opt for an emergency dentist, or whether there are other options.
What is a dental emergency
There are four main reasons why a visit to an emergency dentist is essential. These are:
- Severe pain in the tooth or gum area
- If you have an abscess
- In order to save a tooth which is chipped, broken or detached
- Light bleeding
If you've suffered severe trauma to the teeth or jaw, have difficulty breathing due to tooth or jaw trauma, have an excruciating level of pain or are bleeding heavily, you should go directly to your local emergency hospital, as urgent medical treatment may well be required.
Potential causes of tooth pain
The most common cause of tooth pain is tooth decay: over time, the dental enamel surrounding the tooth gets eaten away, leaving the nerve exposed. This causes pain. If you start experiencing tooth pain, some of these remedies may provide temporary relief:
- Rinsing with warm, salt water (one teaspoon of salt to a pint of water)
- A cold compress applied to the affected side of the face (a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel works well) - normally ten minutes is sufficient to achieve temporary pain relief
- Over-the-counter painkillers (including paracetamol and ibuprofen - use in line with the instructions on the packet)
- Over-the-counter pain-killing gels or other solutions
If these remedies are enough to control the pain until you can get to see a dentist, there's probably no need to request emergency assistance.
Pain may also be caused by gum disease - the self-help remedies already described may provide short-term relief, but dental treatment is recommended as soon as possible.
An abscess is a swollen, infected area under a tooth or inside a gum which is pus-filled and causes considerable pain. If you have an abscess, you will normally experience significant pain and there may be a swelling on your gum.
The pain is often described as a continuous throbbing which is very hard to ignore. If you suspect that you have an abscess, you should request an emergency dentist: not only is an abscess extremely painful, if left untreated it may burst, causing the infection to spread to a wider area.
Broken, chipped or missing teeth
Whether obtained as a result of biting into something unexpectedly hard, or due to a knock to the teeth during sport, it's all too easy for teeth to become chipped, broken, or even knocked out altogether.
If a small piece of your tooth detaches, provided there is no excessive pain or bleeding, a visit to the dentist can usually be delayed until the next day. A large crack or missing portion of the tooth may result in the nerve being exposed. In such circumstances, emergency dental treatment is a necessity.
If a tooth has been knocked out completely, urgent dental or medical attention is required. If possible, try to replace the tooth back in its socket, holding it in place with lint on the top and then gently biting down to hold it in place. This gives the tooth the best chance of re-rooting.
Light bleeding may occur after chipping a tooth, or due to laceration of the gums during injury. In some cases, bleeding may occur due to over-enthusiastic brushing.
A small amount of bleeding which stops within a couple of minutes is normally no cause for serious alarm. That said, any bleeding from the gums or teeth may be a sign of a more serious problem (for example gum disease), so it's important to see a dentist within the next day or so to get checked.
If bleeding is persistent or heavy, it's time to call the emergency dentist or visit your nearest A&E department. You should go directly to A&E if the bleeding is due to jaw or tooth trauma or has no obvious dental-related cause.
If you spit out blood following brushing or flossing, do not presume that this comes from the teeth or gums. It could be blood from the throat, lungs or digestive tract.
Due to the variety of conditions, which may cause bleeding from the mouth area, it's vital that you get checked by a medical professional, particularly if the bleeding is heavy, persistent or occurs more than once.
How to avoid a dental emergency
Although the following measures can't 100% guarantee that you won't need emergency dental treatment, they can significantly reduce the risk that it will be required:
- Ensure you book regular check-ups with your dentist. They will be able to spot any signs of decay and/or gum disease and treat the problem before it requires emergency attention.
- Keep up with your oral hygiene: regular brushing and flossing minimises the risk of plaque developing, which leads to decay.
- Don't take risks with your teeth! In particular, don't: try to open jars or bottles with your teeth; use your teeth to crack nuts; or bite into hard substances.
- If you take part in high-risk sports (football or rugby, for example), make sure that you wear an appropriate gum shield.
- If you take part in activities where there is a high risk of face or jaw trauma (including motor sports, Airsoft combat and biking), make sure you wear appropriate head and face protection.