We all know that accidents happen, and when they happen to involve the mouth or teeth, it may be necessary to find emergency dental services. Or, perhaps a toothache has gotten out of hand and it becomes necessary to seek treatment and relief, stat. Whether you or a family member is suffering from an infection, gets a tooth knocked loose, or experiences any potential dental crisis, learn what you need to know in order to find emergency dental services in your area.
The ER is Not the Place for Emergency Dental Services
Dental emergencies can occur at any time of day, whether your go-to dentist’s office is open or not. However, it is critical that people try to seek out emergency dental services from a dental practitioner, and not the local hospital emergency room.
The number of people seeking emergency dental services in hospital emergency rooms has spiked in recent years, according to a report in USA Today. The news outlet analyzed federal data from the American Dental Association (ADA) that revealed a shocking statistic: Visits to the ER for emergency dental services doubled from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.2 million in 2012. That equates to about one visit every 15 seconds.
ADA officials, along with many dentists nationwide, said the situation persists despite health care reform. The Affordable Care Act mandates that health plans cover dental care for children, but insurance companies do not have to offer dental coverage to adults. When money is tight, and insurance nonexistent, regular dental care is usually the first thing to fall by the wayside for many Americans. As reported in USA Today:
“Limited insurance coverage is a major culprit; all but 15 percent of dental ER visits are by the uninsured or people with government insurance plans.”
Colgate further explains that over the last decade or so, there has been a reduction in private dental benefits and in adult Medicaid dental benefits, making it incredibly difficult for low-income and middle-class families to juggle the rising costs of everyday necessities with routine dental care.
Whether it’s due to lack of dental insurance or other financial barricades, people are delaying dental care until a problem becomes so painful they seek relief from emergency room doctors.
The problem is, hospital ERs are not equipped to treat the spectrum of dental emergencies, and often can do little more than offer antibiotics and painkillers, leaving the true dental issue unaddressed. These visits end up costing patients far more than a routine dental visit that could have helped prevent a dental emergency from manifesting in the first place.
The ADA has been working to collaborate with hospitals across the nation to refer patients from the ER and into a dentist office or clinic – not just for emergency dental services, but for affordable routine care that can prevent sue emergencies.
As Colgate points out:
“Gaining access to both preventive care and education about dental problems is an issue for a growing number of people. The costs associated with prevention and alternative programs will be minute in comparison with the costs associated with health problems such as heart disease, stroke and oral cancers caused by poor dental health.”
There are, of course, some instances when it is necessary to seek treatment from a hospital ER for a emergency concerning the mouth or teeth, such as tissue injuries (lacerations, tears, and puncture wounds) and excessive bleeding – especially if such situations crop up when the dentist office is closed.
Common Problems That Require Emergency Dental Services
Now that we have run through the importance of seeking out a dental professional to treat serious oral health problems, it’s time to understand what exactly constitutes a dental emergency.
- Severe injuries to teeth, gums or face
- Serious infections or abscesses
- Terrible pain or heavy bleeding following a dental procedure
- Accidents that cause bad tooth pain or tooth fractures
- Loss of a crown
- Loose (adult) teeth
- Chipped or cracked teeth
- Facial pain
“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.”
It can sometimes be difficult to determine what can wait until the dentist office reopens when an issue arises at night, on a holiday, or over the weekend. Let’s take a deeper dive into dental problems that may or may not require emergency dental services.
An abscessed tooth is a potentially life-threatening condition resulting from a pocket of pus in the tooth. If left untreated, an infection from an abscessed tooth can spread to the jaw, surrounding tissue, and other areas of the body. This infection may be characterized not only by tooth pain and pus, but also by fever, tender lymph nodes, facial swelling, tooth sensitivity to hot and cold, and a pimple-like bump on the gums near the abscessed tooth. Seek emergency dental services immediately if you think you might have an abscessed tooth.
Cracked, Broken, or Knocked-Out Teeth
A fall, a sports-related injury, or even biting into a piece of food that is too hard can lead to cracked, broken and even knocked-out teeth. Depending on where the tooth is located, and the severity of the injury, it can be possible to wait until business hours to treat a cracked or broken tooth. However, if there is a large piece of tooth missing, the fracture is severe, or the nerve may have been compromised, call your dentist’s office no matter the time and see if there is an emergency number to call, or instructions to follow in the event of an emergency.
Learn more about what you can do while waiting to receive care for a fractured or chipped tooth here.
In the case of a tooth that’s been knocked out, Colgate advises that you handle the tooth as little as possible while you wait to receive care. Rinse it off and store the tooth in a container of milk or saliva until you reach the dentist’s office. A cold, wet compress can help with pain and bleeding coming from the tooth socket.
According to Emergency Dental Care USA, time is of the essence when dealing with a tooth that has been knocked out. It may be possible to re-implant the original tooth if treatment is sought within 30 minutes of it being knocked out.
Bleeding from the mouth or gums that persists beyond a few minutes could be mean you have a dental emergency on your hands. If applying pressure and gauze over the source of the bleeding, or swishing with salt water does not help stem the flow, call your dentist’s office and seek treatment immediately. (Depending on the reason for the bleeding – such as a sports injury – and how rapidly the blood is flowing, this may require a trip to the emergency room).
If a cracked, broken or knocked-out tooth leads to an exposed nerve, seek emergency dental care immediately. An exposed nerve can be extremely painful and interfere with day-to-day activities like eating and drinking (or sometimes even just moving around), so it is best to seek treatment right away.
Loose (Adult) Teeth
No, the Tooth Fairy does not – and should not – visit adults. A loose tooth in an adult is either the result of an unfortunate accident or sports injury, or is likely to be a symptom of an underlying dental issue that should be treated as soon as possible. A loose tooth may not be accompanied by pain, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious issue, Reader’s Digest writes. It could be a sign of a localized infection or an injury that has gone unnoticed.
A tooth that has shifted in alignment, whether by force or decay, is another issue that requires immediate attention. Your dentist may need to splint the tooth to its adjacent teeth to stabilize it.
Missing Filling or Crown
A metallic or bitter taste in your mouth could be indicative of a broken filling that has fallen off (especially if you have older, metal fillings). Though not quite a true dental emergency, a broken filling should be fixed or replaced as soon as possible to avoid needing a crown or even a root canal.
The same goes for a missing crown. While you don’t need to seek out immediate care, don’t wait too long to have a dentist fix a crown that has come off. Without a crown to protect it, what is left of the tooth underneath isn’t as strong as it once was and is also highly sensitive to temperature, pressure, and air.
Additionally, a temporary crown that comes off is not an emergency and can wait until normal office hours to be fixed. Simply adhere the temporary crown to the tooth with Vaseline, toothpaste, or even denture adhesive until you can make an appointment to see your dentist to have it re-cemented.
Severe Mouth Pain and/or Swelling
Excruciating mouth pain or a toothache that doesn’t resolve within 30 minutes or so should not be ignored, especially if the pain has no apparent cause like an injury. If taking anti-inflammatories, using an ice pack, and rinsing your mouth with salt water don’t help, call your dentist for an emergency appointment to pinpoint what’s causing the pain.
On the other hand, don’t be fooled by a longtime toothache that has suddenly stopped hurting. It’s possible that you have an infection or abscess that has spread to close to a nerve, causing numbness, according to Reader’s Digest.
Swelling can also indicate an infection that has gotten out of hand. Severe swelling in the jawline, lips, tongue or gums accompanied by extreme pain is a sign that you should seek emergency dental services right away for treatment of what might be a raging infection. Swelling can also be indicative of a cyst or even oral cancer.
The Consumer Guide to Dentistry writes that any tissue injury inside the mouth, from puncture wounds to lacerations to tears of the lips, cheek, mouth, or tongue is considered a dental emergency. Seek emergency dental services right away if you suffer such injuries, though if you can, try to clean the area with warm water and help stem bleeding with by applying pressure on the wound using gauze. This is another instance when it may be necessary to visit an emergency room if your go-to dentist’s office is closed.
How to Handle a Dental Emergency
Familiarize yourself with the symptoms and consequences of the above dental problems and whether or not they constitute an emergency. Remember, if you (or a family member) are in severe pain, experiencing swelling in the mouth of facial area, are bleeding from the mouth, were hit in the face or mouth, have any loose teeth, and/or notice swelling in the gums, call your dentist and describe the issue in detail. It may be necessary to seek emergency dental services immediately.
Since a dental emergency can happen at any time or place, it is helpful to be prepared. The Consumer Guide to Dentistry suggests creating a dental first aid kit containing the following items, to keep with you in a purse, diaper bag, or car:
- A small container with a lid (for storing a tooth that has been knocked out)
- The name and phone number of your dentist
- Acetaminophen (unlike aspirin or ibuprofen, this painkiller does not act like a blood thinner that could cause excessive bleeding during a dental emergency)
If a dental emergency happens and you determine that you or a family member require immediate attention, call your dentist’s office immediately, no matter the time. As previously stated, it’s possible the office will reroute you to an emergency number or provide emergency instructions during off hours. If that’s not the case, try searching for an emergency dental clinic near you. If neither of these options work, it may be necessary to visit the hospital ER if you truly cannot wait until the office reopens.
Should you secure a visit for emergency dental services, be sure to recount exactly what led to the problem. Did a rogue hockey puck connect directly with your son’s mouth? Have you been experiencing a toothache that has reached extreme levels of pain? Be as specific as possible so the dentist can make the proper diagnosis and treat the problem so that it does not become a chronic issue.
What to Know About Insurance and Emergency Dental Services
Unfortunately, having dental care coverage is more of a luxury than a reality for many Americans. Still, lack of insurance should not prevent people from seeking emergency dental services. Reach out to your local dentist’s office to learn if it is possible to pay in installments for emergency dental services. Get in touch with your local health department to find out if there is a nearby federally funded community health center that provides free or reduced-cost health services, like dental care.
Remember, routine dental care and help prevent small oral health issues from becoming full-blown emergencies. Dental schools and dental hygiene school programs can provide free or low-cost alternatives to the dentist’s office for routine exams and cleanings, as students can perform basic care as part of their training. The United Way may also be able to assist you in finding reduced-cost dental care options in your area.
How to Avoid a Dental Emergency
Speaking of routine dental care – that is the most effective way to prevent dental emergencies that result from poor oral hygiene, like infections. Make sure you are brushing your teeth twice a daily and flossing regularly. Be on the lookout for any changes in your oral health. Prioritize your family’s oral health by ensuring you keep those biannual checkups with your dentist!
Other ways to prevent the need for emergency dental services are quite common sense, like wearing a mouthguard during sports activities, not chewing on ice, and being careful not to bite down on hard foods that can chip or break your teeth. Do not use your teeth to break or cut things, or to open a bottle.
No matter how careful we are, or how well we take care of our teeth, accidents happen and there may come a time when you need to find emergency dental services. Keep your cool and call your dentist’s office, regardless of the time, and follow any directions for after-hours emergency situations. Get to know emergency dental clinics in your area, and, if necessary, do not rule out a trip to the ER to take care of a true emergency that cannot wait until the dentist’s office reopens.
For any questions, contact your nearest Columbia Dental office. At Columbia Dental, all of our locations across Connecticut provide complete oral care for the entire family. Plus, we offer convenient night and weekend hours, so you and your family can receive proper dental care when it fits your schedule, or if emergencies arise. Call us at 860-645-0111 to learn more today.