Dental emergencies: what counts as a dental emergency, plus dental first aid and when to get help

For patients in a hurry:

If you are in the middle of a dental emergency, it is best to head to your nearest hospital and they will contact the dentist on call.

Can it wait? What counts as a dental emergency?

Understandably, with the cost of emergency after hours care, people would like to know when something can wait til morning, and when it can’t.

When in doubt, it is best to seek professional attention sooner rather than later so you can potentially save a tooth or avoid life-threatening infections or blood loss.

Here is a list of times you really must get seen by a dentist (go to your nearest hospital Accident and Emergency department) as soon as possible:

  1. Severe bleeding around the teeth and jaw (usually as a result of an accident).
  2. Severe pain in the teeth or gums (which is not responding to pain killers and lasts for 1 -2 days) as this probably indicates a serious infection that must be treated.
  3. Swelling and pain that spreads from the teeth or jaw to other parts of the face, especially below the eyes or below the jaw. This can be life-threatening.
  4. A tooth which has just been knocked out.

4.   A large dental abscess or other severe infection in the jaw or gums.

First aid: what can you do while you wait for treatment?

In the case of bleeding: apply firm, but gentle, pressure to the area with sterile gauze or a very clean handkerchief or similar clean fabric. If possible, you can apply some gauze to the area and bite down firmly to hold it in place.

In the case of a tooth that is knocked out cleanly: holding the tooth only by the part that usually sticks out (the crown and not the root), try to return the tooth to its original position. Make sure it is facing the right way first.

Do not attempt to clean the tooth with any brushes, disinfectants, sterilisers, or bleach, as you could damage it beyond repair.  

If you cannot replace the tooth: place the tooth in a clean container and cover it with milk. Take this with you to the dentist as soon as possible.

Do not attempt to clean the tooth with brushes or place it in any disinfectants, bleach, mouth wash, etc. as this could permanently damage the roots.

In the case of dental pain: take a painkiller you know is safe for you, and put a cold compress on the area to reduce swelling and numb pain. Do not apply ice or heat directly to a painful tooth as this will cause more pain.

If you knock out a crown or filling: this is not usually a dental emergency, but it is best to keep the crown in a clean container and try and see your dentist as soon as you can to get it repaired. It can be very painful if the exposed area comes into contact with hot or cold foods and you should eat, drink and clean the area with extra care.

Prevention where possible

It is best to use a mouth guard when playing contact sports to prevent injuries to your teeth. You can read our post on the importance of this here.

Try to avoid allowing infections and especially an abscess to go untreated for too long. These things can be easily treated when they start out but can become dangerous if allowed to spread unchecked. Remember to practice good oral hygiene to prevent gum disease and cavities, and to book regular annual checkups with your dentist.

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Marguerite MacRobert

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