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How to Deal with 4 Common Types of Dental Emergencies

Is a chipped tooth a big deal? What if a permanent tooth falls out? Here's how to get a handle on your dental dilemma.

Dental emergencies can happen anytime and anywhere. Here’s how to handle four of the most common mishaps you may confront. 

Emergency: Chipped or cracked tooth 
Start by rinsing out your mouth with warm water. Use a cold compress to reduce any swelling in the mouth. You can take over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, if your personal health conditions allow it. 

What to do about a chipped tooth: If the tooth is chipped, find the piece that has chipped off, if possible. Put it in a plastic bag with a few drops of water or wrap it in wet gauze to keep it moist. See a dentist immediately to repair the tooth. If it is a small chip, it may not be possible to find the piece or reattach it. 

What to do about a cracked tooth: If the tooth is cracked, visit a dentist as soon as possible. Avoid chewing on anything hard or sticky. If it feels painful to eat food, breathe through your mouth or drink cold fluid, try biting on clean, moistened gauze. However, do not use a topical oral pain medication or put aspirin on the affected area. 

Emergency: Painful toothache 
Rinse your mouth with warm water. Use floss to gently try to remove debris that may be stuck between your teeth. Never poke your toothache with anything sharp or place aspirin directly on the painful area. If the pain continues or gets worse, or you have a fever, call your dentist right away—this could be a sign of a serious infection. 

Emergency: Total tooth knock-out 
Losing a tooth can be a traumatic experience, for either an adult or child. Here's what to do if a permanent tooth is knocked out: The first step is to call a dentist for an immediate appointment. It’s necessary to act as quickly as possible, often within 30 minutes, if you want to save the tooth. 

Never touch the root of the tooth—only handle it by the crown, the top part of the tooth you can usually see. If the tooth is dirty, gently wash with water only. Do not dry or wrap the tooth. Instead, you can try to reposition the tooth back into its socket. Hold the tooth at the crown and gently place it back into the socket. If this is not an option, try keeping the tooth between your cheek and gums. If it takes longer than anticipated to see a dentist, keep the tooth moist by placing it in milk. 

If a child’s baby tooth is knocked out, just keep the tooth moist in milk. See a dentist as soon as possible to determine if the tooth can be replaced. 

Emergency: Damaged braces 
For a loose or broken braces bracket, use orthodontic wax to hold it in place. If the bracket has fallen off completely, do not throw it away. Keep it and notify your orthodontist of the issue so you can set up an appointment as soon as possible. 

If a wire from braces is dislodged or poking your mouth, use orthodontic wax to prevent discomfort and hold in place until you can see the orthodontist. If necessary, you may have to carefully move the wire with tweezers or clip with sterile nail clippers, as close as possible to your teeth, before covering the rough edge with wax. 

If you try this method, don’t touch any teeth or gums with the nail clippers. Securely hold the wire being clipped with your other hand to prevent accidentally swallowing it. Tie 12 inches of floss to the nail clippers for easy retrieval if they’re accidentally dropped into your mouth. 

When you shouldn’t wait for treatment 
It’s important to remember that delaying treatment of a dental emergency can cause serious complications, so you may need to find a dentist with emergency hours close to your location. 

For dental emergencies, it’s usually better to find a dentist to treat you quickly. While most emergency rooms or urgent care centers can provide temporary pain relief, they are often not equipped to treat dental issues. Plus, a trip to the ER or urgent care could be costly and time-consuming. 

If you have any doubts on whether or not the situation is a true emergency—or if you experience any of the following symptoms—call 911 or get to the nearest ER: 

  • Trouble breathing, even if due to swelling 
  • Heavy bleeding 
  • Severe pain 
  • High fever that medicine doesn’t reduce 
  • Trauma to the face, such as cuts inside or around the mouth or a possible broken jaw 

Before you depart 
If you’re leaving for an extended vacation or traveling outside of the country, it’s a good idea to see your dentist for any lingering issues before leaving. This is especially important if there is a language barrier at your destination or if you will be in a remote area. Be proactive to prevent some of these problems before they happen. 

Medically reviewed in July 2019. Updated in March 2021. 

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