What Is Considered a Dental Emergency?

30 Sep 2021
Dental Emergency

The definition of a dental emergency, according to the American Dental Association (ADA), is a condition that can be life-threatening, requiring immediate treatment. It can involve bleeding, severe pain, infection, swelling, and many other tell-tale signs that something is wrong.

But that isn’t anything people didn’t already know, and it doesn’t answer the question in a manner that is easily understood. Wilmington Orthodontics understands that patients need more information and that is why we created this guide to dental and orthodontic emergencies. The first step is to have a plan.

Having an Emergency Plan in Place

The worst time to try to find a dentist is when you or a child are in pain. Hopefully, you have a regular dentist and have been getting regular checkups and cleanings. If not, now is the perfect time to start because the first item on the emergency plan is to contact your dentist.

A few handy tips before you call:

  • Make a list of symptoms
  • Make a list of things already done (salt-water rinses, over-the-counter meds, ice compresses, etc.)
  • Note when the symptoms began and where the pain is located
  • Note what you were doing when symptoms began (eating, drinking, playing sports, etc.)
  • Determine the level of pain using a 1 to 10 scale with 1 being low and 10 being the worst
  • Be open to the recommendations (you may not like them)

If your pain is directly related to an orthodontic issue (braces, Invisalign, or other orthodontic treatment) you would contact your orthodontist first. They will likely ask many of the same questions. Many orthodontic emergencies involve broken appliances rather than life-threatening issues, but it is always better to be safe.

Determining the Level of Pain

Mouth pain can be some of the most intense pain one will ever experience. In a way, that is good because people don’t tend to ignore the pain. It can also be debilitating. Your dentist will ask you to rate your level of pain. They use a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 might be a dull, constant throb and 10 is overwhelmingly bad.

Please be as honest as possible in your assessment of your pain level. There are no extra points for being able to tough it out with a dental emergency. Toughing it out could turn a simple low-level infection into a life-threatening problem.

Guide to Dental Emergency Symptoms

This guide is only designed to help, not replace visiting a dentist. While not every situation will require a trip to the dentist, please ALWAYS call the office. Dental staff are trained to assess a dental emergency and can offer tips and recommendations for your best course of action.

When Food is Stuck Between Teeth

Food can get trapped in small gaps between teeth or along the gum line. While flossing will often remove these, occasionally you get a stubborn bit. If you can’t remove a food particle, it is important to contact your dentist as these may become infected and promote tooth decay.

Swollen Gums, Jaw, or Mouth

Swelling around the mouth or jaw is ALWAYS an emergency. Call your dentist. If they cannot make a same-day appointment, they may refer you to the nearest Urgent Care or Emergency medical facility. Although a salt-water rinse may ease some of the pain, this will only provide temporary relief.

Bleeding Gums

Bleeding gums should be monitored. Although normally not a dental emergency, this can be a sign of a more serious problem. A small amount of bleeding while flossing that stops quickly is something you should talk to your dentist about.


Never ignore a toothache, even when it seems minor. Make an appointment as soon as possible to have your dentist take a look. Although over-the-counter (OTC) analgesic gels or OTC pain relievers may make the pain bearable, prolonged use of these products can create additional health problems. OTC products are for temporary relief and do not substitute for proper dental care.

Exposed Nerves Can Cause Excruciating Pain

Exposed nerves can go from a tiny annoyance to knee-buckling debilitating pain in a short time. While not always a dental emergency, it is considered urgent. You should advise your dentist of that slight twinge you get whenever you eat ice cream.

Tooth Abscess

An abscessed tooth is ALWAYS a dental emergency. Contact your dentist immediately if you suspect an abscess. Some of the symptoms to look for are:

  • Sensitivity to heat or cold
  • Toothache (no matter how “minor” it seems)
  • Swelling in the face, neck, or lymph nodes
  • Sore in the mouth

An abscess is an infection and will likely require antibiotic treatment. NEVER ignore an abscess.

Knocking Out a Tooth

Although predominately a hazard during sports play, knocking out a tooth can happen to anyone. If the tooth is a primary (baby) tooth in a child, no worries unless there is excessive bleeding. However, adult teeth can pose some permanent problems. The American Association of Endodontists has a defined set of emergency protocols:

  1. Locate the tooth (be sure to avoid touching the root).
  2. Rinse the tooth, but do not scrub it or use soap or toothpaste.
  3. Re-insert the tooth into the socket if you can. DON’T FORCE IT.
  4. Maintain moisture. In the mouth, this happens naturally. If you were unable to re-insert the tooth, place it in a small container with milk.
  5. Get to the dentist or an endodontist as soon as possible.

In many cases, if you can get to a dentist within a short period, usually 30 minutes or less, many knocked-out teeth can be saved.

Guide to Orthodontic Emergencies

Fortunately, most people never experience true emergencies with their orthodontic appliances. The brackets and metal wires of braces are strong, but also fragile, though. The first course of action is to contact your doctor’s office if you have a broken or loose wire or bracket.

In many instances, staff can help you figure out the problem and give you advice on how to temporarily “fix” the problem so that it doesn’t cause you pain.

Contact Wilmington Orthodontics for Answers

If you have questions about dental or orthodontic emergencies, please do not hesitate to contact Wilmington Orthodontics at (978) 658-3310.

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