You may consider your teeth to be a low priority compared to the rest of your body. Aside from brushing and the occasional flossing, you probably neglect them until you experience dental problems like pain, swelling, or bleeding. Sometimes this can manifest into a dental emergency. But should you go to the hospital or your dentist?
The American Dental Association (ADA) says that emergency room (ER) visits for dental problems have consistently been on the rise since 2000, jumping from 1.1 million to roughly 2.1 million a year. Of those visits, 1.65 million could have been referred to a dental practice instead, saving the healthcare system $1.7 billion, not to mention savings for the consumer, too. “Most ERs do not have dentists available,” says Mary Hayes, DDS, an ADA spokesperson based in Chicago. “Physicians have limited training when it comes to mouth issues, so your dentist is usually the best authority.” Check out the 13 signs you need to see your dentist ASAP.
To successfully navigate common dental problems, we spoke with dentists on how to handle dental emergencies at home with a few key items. Plus, they share when you should wait for a dentist or go to the hospital for urgent care.
Monitor your diet for cavity care
It’s important to schedule your dental checkup (which is on average every three to six months) to make sure you’re practicing good oral hygiene. In the meantime, if you haven’t been following the best preventative care—brushing twice a day and flossing often—tooth decay can build up, leading to cavities. And while a cavity can be painful on its own, leaving one untreated for too long can cause more serious issues.
“When cavities progress they can lead to nerve damage, and this results in the patient needing a root canal,” says Bruce Lein, DDS, a dentist based in Jupiter, Florida. Even if your cavity doesn’t warrant a root canal other problems may arise like gum disease, adds Mark Burhenne, DDS, a dentist based in Sunnyvale, California.
You can’t reverse a cavity, but there are a few things you can do on top of good oral hygiene to slow and prevent further decay. “Stay away from carbs, processed foods, and packaged goods,” says Dr. Burhenne. “Bread is one of the most common causes of decay and gum disease.” (There are actually 8 foods that will help prevent tooth decay.) Another factor is if you suffer from dry mouth. “This is where mouth tape can come in handy,” says Dr. Burhenne. “If you tend to sleep with your mouth open, tape will keep it shut and prevent pH changes in your mouth, helping the oral microbiome stay balanced.” Not sure if you have a cavity?
Use temporary filling material for a broken molar
Next to cavities, Dr. Burhenne says molar issues are a common problem he sees in his practice. Molars can break from biting something too hard, or as a result of a fall. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to permanently fix it without a trip to the dentist.
Until then, a temporary filling material will be able to cover up any holes or spaces on the molar. “A good trick if you don’t have these materials and want to prevent food from getting impacted into a broken filling is to take a beeswax candle, cut off some of the wax and melt it,” says Dr. Hayes. Let it cool a bit. “Then mold it to plug up the hole.”
Choose orthodontic wax for a chipped tooth
Teeth can break from both trauma and simply wear and tear over time. “We’re more likely to grind and clench our teeth as we get older, and this can often lead to a break,” says Dr. Hayes. But for small chips that don’t expose any nerves and aren’t causing significant amounts of pain when eating, Dr. Burhenne says orthodontic wax can go a long way to help. The wax can cover up sharp areas of the tooth to protect your tongue so you’re able to stay comfortable until you find yourself in a dentist’s chair.
Floss, tweezers, and pain relievers for gum pain
If you find your gums are particularly sensitive, start by reaching for the floss or tweezers. “Stuck food that doesn’t get removed from the gums can cause an infection [which then requires antibiotics],” says Dr. Hayes. For hard to reach areas or food that just won’t budge, try knotting the floss if you don’t have tweezers to help loosen things up, particularly for larger pieces of food. For sensitive gums, Anbesol (benzocaine)—a local anesthetic topical pain reliever—can help in addition to a pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or ibuprofen while you wait to speak to your dentist. If you’re dealing with sensitive teeth, these 8 steps can stop tooth pain quickly.
When to seek urgent care
It’s vital to have the right tools at home to keep you comfortable when something in your mouth goes amiss. But it’s also important to recognize the red flags for when your dental issue requires immediate care. “If you have persistent pain that does not go away with the use of a pain reliever like Tylenol or ibuprofen, that’s a sign you need to call your dentist for advice [or do a teledentistry appointment] right away,” says Dr. Hayes.
She adds: “Swelling around your gums is also serious, and especially if there is swelling in the mouth that creeps up into the face and/or eyes.” In this instance, you should head straight to the ER, as oral pain accompanied by this type of swelling may be a sign of a dental infection that’s gotten into another tissue space in the body.
For other dental emergencies, a chipped tooth that does expose the nerve, or pain that just isn’t letting up your best bet if you can’t see your usual dentist (or if you don’t have one) is to find an emergency dentist. “Call your local county dental society, who will have a list of professionals who are open for emergencies,” says Dr. Burhenne. Many of these dentists will be oral surgeons, who can handle everything from a broken filling to a tooth extraction if needed. Don’t miss the 10 signs you’re headed for a dental emergency.
Your dental emergency kit
Our dentists shared a few items you should always have on hand for dental emergencies. These items help relieve pain and create a temporary solution until you can get in to see your dentist. They include:
- Floss or floss sticks
- Tweezers (to get items floss can’t grab, like a stuck popcorn kernel)
- Tylenol or ibuprofen
- Orthodontic wax
- Mouth tape
- Temporary filling material
- An antibiotic like azithromycin, amoxicillin, or penicillin