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Medical emergencies happen all the time, and most people usually know when it’s necessary to seek emergency care. However, it can be less clear about what “mishaps” qualify for an emergency trip to a provider. An expert from the Texas A&M College of Dentistry talks about what is a dental emergency, and what can wait until the next appointment.
There are a few things that can lead to somebody getting in touch with their dentist’s after-hours calling system, and the first and most common emergency is a displaced or fractured tooth.
“A tooth can fracture in a variety of different ways,” said Joe Simmons, DDS, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Dentistry. “There can be trauma where the tooth or teeth are displaced or knocked out, like falling off a bike or playing basketball, or a tooth can crack after a dental procedure—like a root canal.”
If you’re playing a contact sport (such as hockey, football or basketball), the best way to prevent traumatic injuries is to wear a custom-fitted mouthguard to significantly lower the risk of damaging your teeth from collisions or falls.
Another dental emergency can be when you have a type of serious oral infection (some infections, like cold sores or gingivitis, require medical care, but not emergency care). If there is swelling around your jawline or under your mouth and associated difficulty in breathing or swallowing, that can be a sign of Ludwig’s Angina—an infection that occurs on the floor of the mouth, under the tongue. This situation requires emergency medical care as the bacteria from the infection can travel from the oral cavity to the pericardial tissue around the heart.
Other infections can cause terrible pain to the point where it interferes with sleep even when being treated with over-the-counter pain medication. These would also qualify as a reason to see your dentist immediately. It is important to note that such infections are typically advanced conditions that could have been more easily treated before they get to the point where an emergency visit is necessary. Simmons recommends, therefore, scheduling a dental appointment when the pain first starts, or even more importantly, make regular semi-annual visits to your family dentist.
Maybe your toothache or sudden sensitive teeth aren’t emergencies, but they do need to get looked at. Those may be on the lower tier of the emergency hierarchy.
“Dental emergencies are a continuum,” Simmons said. “Emergencies are usually fractures and infections, and urgent matters are when you have pain, sudden sensitivity to sweets or hot or cold drinks.”
These are usually the sign of something minor, like a cavity, which can be treated before it becomes a more severe condition like a dental emergency, so it’s best not to put off your visits to the dentist.
“At some point, your condition was easily treatable, so it’s best to schedule an appointment when something feels wrong and check-in with your dentist,” Simmons said. “Intervention can go a long way toward an immediate fix to restore the tooth or treat the infection and improve your oral health.”
In the end, if you protect your pearly whites from trauma and see your dentist regularly, you should be able to avoid most dental emergencies.
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