What is a Dental Emergency?

Many health emergencies are easy to identify. If someone passes out and remains unconscious, you dial 911. When a person grabs their chest and convulses in pain, people start to panic and call for an ambulance. 

However, a dental emergency isn’t always as clear. For one thing, dental emergencies are rarely life-threatening. You don’t call an ambulance to get to the dentist. 

But some oral health issues or tooth damage caused by accidents do qualify as emergencies because they require immediate attention. Here are signs you’re dealing with an emergency.

Tooth Fracture

The most common reason for an after-hours or rushed visit to a dental practice is tooth fracture. Anybody who has coached little league baseball for long enough knows what we’re talking about. 

Tooth fractures are common with kids and athletes. Falling off a bike, or playing a contact sport like basketball, football, or hockey puts participants at risk of fracturing a tooth or having it knocked out entirely. Again, look at the mouths of many pro hockey players and you’ll know what we mean. 

Tooth fractures or accidental removal are painful and the damage is usually obvious. If this happens to you or someone in your family, it’s an emergency you need to deal with right away. Your dentist will administer painkillers, stop the bleeding, and initiate initial repair work. 

Oral Infection 

Some types of oral infections deteriorate to the point that they become dental emergencies. 

If you have an oral infection that is so painful that you can’t sleep or function normally, even when taking over the counter painkillers, you should get to the dentist fast.  

The first concern is that you’ve developed a tooth abscess, which is a pocket of pus that’s caused by a bacterial infection. You can get a periapical abscess at the tip and root of your tooth, or a periodontal abscess, which occurs in the gums at the side of a tooth root. 

Periapical abscesses occur more often as they are usually the result of an untreated cavity (they can also result from injury or prior dental work). 

If you have this type of abscess you’re at risk of losing your tooth; a root canal treatment might save it, if not it will need to be pulled. 

An untreated tooth abscess can lead to serious, even life-threatening, complications. If you recognize these symptoms, get to your dentist immediately:

  • Severe, persistent, throbbing toothache that radiates to ear, neck, or jawbone
  • Sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures
  • Sensitivity to the pressure of chewing or biting
  • High fever
  • Swelling in your face or cheek
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes under your jaw or in your neck
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing

If the abscess ruptures, you’ll get a sudden blast of salty fluid in your mouth that is both foul-tasting and smelling. Your pain will subside, but this is a sign that the abscess is advanced and you are at serious risk of losing your tooth or having the infection spread. Get to your dentist right away – this is a dental emergency. 

Another type of oral infection to be aware of is Ludwig’s angina, which is a serious infection that occurs on the floor of the mouth and neck. Ludwig’s angina is caused by the presence of bacteria from oral infections like a tooth abscess or mouth injury. 

At its worst levels, Ludwig’s angina is cause to call 911. It can be life-threatening because it causes complications like sepsis. 

The main thing to watch for with this condition is a severe swelling of the mouth and neck.  Also, look for:

  • fever and chills
  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • mouth pain
  • tongue swelling
  • voice hoarseness
  • drooling
  • a sore throat

Sometimes people with Ludwig’s angina have these symptoms:

  • an earache
  • confusion or other changes in thinking
  • fatigue, excessive tiredness, or weakness

If you or someone you know has been experiencing tooth pain that might be associated with a tooth abscess and then starts to get swelling in their mouth or neck, this is a serious health emergency. Call 911. 

Dental Urgency

It’s more common that you’ll experience a dental health issue which is urgent – rather than an emergency. This means you should get to a dentist as soon as possible, but you don’t have to make an after-hours dash to their office. 

If you are in the Longmont, Colorado area and you are experiencing any of these symptoms, call our office right away and describe them to us. We’ll prioritize you to get you scheduled and in for treatment right away. 

  • Loose tooth. A loose or wiggly tooth is a bad sign in adults. The tooth fairy doesn’t leave money for adults with teeth that are starting to rot out. A loose tooth may occur because of an accident, or it may be a sign of a localized infection. Don’t wait to have your loose tooth treated or you may lose it. 
  • Severe toothache. Both sharp, sudden tooth pain or a constant, dull, throbbing in your teeth or gums are signs of an urgent dental condition. The pain will motivate you to come in quickly, but it’s also important that we diagnose what’s causing the pain to treat the underlying cause. 
  • Bleeding Gums. Most people see a little blood after they floss, but if the bleeding is excessive, recurring, and causes pain in your gums, that’s a sign of an urgent dental issue. Chances are you’re developing gingivitis, which is a serious type of gum disease. Early treatment of gingivitis is critical because it creates a host of other serious dental health issues when untreated. 
  • Canker sores. If you have a canker sore (or something you think is a canker sore) that doesn’t go away within two weeks, it may be infected or be another issue. 
  • Numb teeth. If you get a toothache then it passes and you seem to have no feeling at all in the tooth, it’s a bad sign and likely a symptom of an abscess. Get it checked quickly. 
  • A metal taste in your mouth. A metallic taste in your mouth is a sign that a filling is cracked or has become loose. An open filling can leave you prone to new infections and cavities. If it falls out, the opening in your tooth will be sensitive and possibly quite painful. Get it fixed right away. 

Dental emergencies and urgent dental issues won’t stand for procrastination. If you let the problem go, pain may be the least of your problems. Issues like gingivitis are easier and less expensive to treat when they are detected early. 

That goes for most dental health issues. Regular check-ups and consistent personal care are the best way to avoid most dental emergencies. Keep your eye out for incoming baseballs and hockey pucks and you’ll be good.   

If you think you’re having a dental emergency, contact our Longmont dentist office right away. We’re on call 24/7 to make sure we can handle your emergency without delay.