Definition & Overview

A dental emergency is described as a potentially serious situation that involves the teeth, jaws, or gums and which requires immediate treatment to prevent the condition from getting worse and causing permanent damage.

Dental emergencies are mostly due to injuries but severe infections are common as well. Most emergencies are accompanied by severe pain as a symptom. However, visible deformities of the oral region, such as swelling are also considered as an emergency.

Swelling of the gums and the sides of the face indicate the presence of a severe infection. If not treated promptly, an infection can spread and may even reach the brain. In such cases, the condition is considered not just a dental emergency wherein an ordinary dentist can provide treatment, but also a medical emergency that would require the expertise of a specialist in the affected area. Therefore, it’s imperative that a dental emergency receives prompt treatment.

A dental emergency can happen to anyone of any age. It can happen anytime during the day or night. The majority of dental clinics are only open during regular business hours. If an emergency occurs beyond these hours and the patient requires immediate attention, it’s best to proceed to a hospital’s emergency department where most doctors are capable of providing emergency dental treatment.

Cause of Condition

Dental emergencies can be caused by a wide variety of factors. Many emergencies are sports related injuries. Some even happen at home or in a restaurant while eating. Many more emergencies are caused by infections.

Some of the most common types of dental emergencies are toothaches, broken or chipped teeth, a partially dislodged tooth, a knocked-out tooth, lost or loose filling, lost crowns, loose brackets, abscess, broken braces, and gum and jawbone injuries.

While many of the above situations may not seem like an “emergency” and can therefore be treated during regular clinic hours, it’s best to consult a dentist as soon as possible to prevent the situation from worsening.

For example, a broken or chipped tooth may not seem like it would necessitate immediate treatment, but if the condition is left untreated, it can lead to infections, which would then result in the loss of the tooth or the infection spreading to other areas and causing major damage.

Key Symptoms

The common symptom of most dental emergencies is pain. Many people have a tendency to seek dental services only when they feel pain. However, in many cases, pain only occurs when the problem has already gotten worse.

A good example is a toothache. Toothaches don’t usually occur suddenly. They are often a result of an infected tooth. In many cases, a toothache begins with a cracked tooth, loose filling, or cavities. A cracked tooth and a loose or missing filling are considered as dental emergencies because there is a good possibility that these conditions could lead to infections.

Aside from pain, other common symptoms are swelling, numbness, and sensitivity.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

A dentist should be able to manage most dental emergencies. However, if an injury or infection affects more than just the oral region, the situation would require the expertise of a medical doctor or surgeon.

The dentist will first examine the teeth and look for possible problem areas. Once the exact problem has been identified, the dentist will recommend treatment.

For toothaches, a dentist will first determine the exact cause of the pain. Most toothaches are caused by an infection. The dentist will then prescribe antibiotics to control the infection. Painkillers would most likely also be prescribed to manage the pain. If you are sensitive in any way to certain painkillers, be sure to inform your dentist.

For chipped or broken teeth, the dentist will examine the extent of the damage. If the roots of the tooth have also been damaged, the dentist may recommend a root canal procedure. If only the crown has been affected, bonding agents should do the trick. In some cases, the dentist may recommend a dental crown to prevent further damage.

For knocked-out teeth, there is a possibility that the dentist may still be able to reattach the tooth. However, the dentist will need to do this within an hour of the tooth being knocked out. Every minute after that reduces the chances of the tooth being reattached.

If an abscess is already present, the dentist will drain the abscess and prescribe antibiotics to control the infection. It’s important to realize that the presence of abscess is a serious condition. It may only cause a small amount of pain, but there is a good chance of the abscess spreading and affecting nearby teeth.

Many dental emergencies are due to improper dental hygiene. Practicing good dental hygiene on a daily basis and wearing mouth guards when participating in sports will prevent a good number of dental emergencies from occurring.


  • American Dental Association
  • University of Pittsburgh, School of Dental Medicine
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