Short Bites: What Is a Dental Emergency?
January 9, 2018
What is a dental emergency?
I often get this question from non-dental personnel including case managers, physician assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners. The following is a short list of questions you can ask patients to guide dental referrals for emergency care:
- Are you in severe pain? Severe pain and bleeding are signs of an emergency.
- Have you lost a tooth? Fast treatment can potentially save a tooth.
- Do you have loose teeth? Adults should never lose teeth. A loose tooth, even without pain, is a serious problem.
- Do you have an infection? An abscess or serious infection in your mouth can be life-threatening, and treatment should be started immediately. You may notice swelling or knots on your gums or swelling around the face.
- Are you bleeding from the mouth? This is a potential sign of an emergency.
In general, any dental problem that needs immediate treatment to stop bleeding, alleviate severe pain, or save a tooth is considered an emergency. This consideration also applies to severe infections that can be life-threatening.
What is not a dental emergency?
If the problem can wait until your dentist can see you in the next couple of days, it isn’t a dental emergency.
Sometimes addressing problems that seem critical actually can be put off for a day or so, as long as you take care of yourself. For example, a chipped or cracked tooth is an emergency if the fracture is very painful or has left sharp fragments that cause trauma inside your mouth. If the tooth is chipped but does not hurt, you can wait to see your dentist.
Treatment for a toothache also can be delayed if the pain is not severe and you do not have symptoms of an abscess such as swelling of the face, bumps on the gums, or a high fever. If you have lost a crown or filling, you can likely wait a few days to see your dentist. You can temporarily put a piece of sugar-free gum into the cavity after losing a filling. With a lost crown, you can try putting the crown back in place temporarily with denture adhesive or over-the-counter dental cement — just don’t use super glue.
The best way to prevent dental emergencies is to encourage your clients to stay proactive in their oral hygiene and have routine check-ups with their dentist. During these visits, the dentist will check for loose fillings and crowns as well as signs of decay, infection, and gum disease.
Mark Schweizer, DDS, MPH, is an Assistant Professor and Director of Development and Special Projects, and Program Director for Ryan White HIV/AIDS Programs at Nova Southeastern University College of Dental Medicine. Dr. Schweizer is also Dental Director for the Southeast AIDS Education and Training Center.