Dental emergencies include accidents involving your teeth or mouth, toothache, bleeding, infections and swelling. Always seek dental treatment when a dental emergency occurs to improve the chance of saving the tooth or teeth and preventing infections occurring or becoming more serious. Ideally you should seek treatment from a dentist in an emergency, however if unable to see a dentist, a hospital emergency department may be able to provide the treatment needed to save the tooth.
Seeking emergency assistance
You can search for dental clinics here, some may be open later hours or have on-call dentists available to treat dental emergencies.
What to do in various types of dental emergencies
Knocked out tooth
If an adult (permanent) tooth is knocked out, it can be saved but immediate action is required.
- Remain calm and find the tooth.
- Handle the top of the tooth only (the white part you normally see outside the gum). Never hold the tooth by its roots.
- Do not scrape, rub or remove any tissue fragments from the tooth.
- Make sure the tooth is clean. If the tooth is dirty, rinse it in milk or contact lens saline solution. Alternatively, the owner can gently suck the tooth although this is not recommended for young children or adults who are unconscious, in shock or not calm and cooperative.
- Immediately replant the tooth in the socket until you hear a click or the tooth is level with the other teeth. Bite down on a clean cloth to help hold the tooth in place.
- If unable to replant the tooth, keep it moist by putting it in a container of milk or contact lens solution (not water), placing it in the owner’s mouth next to the cheek (if the owner is able), or covering it with a clean plastic wrap with some saliva, if possible.
- Do not let the tooth dry out.
- Seek immediate dental treatment (time is critical).
If a baby (deciduous or milk) tooth is knocked out:
- Do not attempt to replace it in the socket. Re-implanting a knocked out baby tooth could cause damage to the developing adult tooth.
- Seek prompt dental treatment so any trauma to the lips and gums can be managed. Take the tooth with you to the dentist.
- Rinse the mouth with warm water to remove food debris.
- If swelling is present, place a cold compress to the outside of the cheek (do not use heat).
- Control moderate pain with over-the-counter pain medication.
- Do not place aspirin on the gum or aching tooth. Aspirin can cause the soft tissue to burn.
- Seek dental treatment as soon as possible.
You may also experience pain in the jaw, head or ear.
Abscesses and swelling
Dental abscesses are pus-filled swellings caused by infection inside a tooth, infection of the gum or trauma to the tooth. If you have a tooth abscess, you may experience:
- a toothache
- red, swollen gums or face
- a bad taste in your mouth or bad breath
- teeth sensitivity to hot or cold food and drink
- swollen glands in the neck
- swollen upper or lower jaw, which indicates serious infection
- difficulty swallowing or opening your mouth
- nausea or vomiting
See your dentist as soon as you can, an abscess will not heal itself and can become very serious if left untreated.
Abscesses can sometimes be painful and can progress to cause facial swelling or enlarged lymph glands. In rare cases, dental abscesses can cause more widespread infection and may be life threatening. See your dental practitioner as soon as possible if you have an abscess. If you are experiencing facial swelling, seek treatment immediately from your dental practitioner or GP.
Easing pain and discomfort
While waiting to see your dental practitioner, you can ease the pain and discomfort by:
- Taking pain medicine to reduce your pain. Take this in the usual way and do not apply the medication to the abscess itself unless directed by a healthcare professional.
- Use cold compresses to help control swelling.
- A dental practitioner or GP may prescribe antibiotics to reduce infection, however antibiotics will not remove the source of infection.
Chips, fractures and cracks
If a tooth is chipped, fractured or cracked, seek dental treatment as soon as possible. If the chip or fracture is only minimal and there is no soft tissue trauma and no pain, do not panic. See your dental practitioner as soon as you can. If the damage to the tooth is more extensive, look for any signs of ‘pink’ as this indicates the nerve is exposed. If the nerve is exposed, seek immediate dental treatment. Delaying treatment may mean the tooth will be unable to be saved.
Bitten lips or cheeks
A lip or cheek can be bitten while eating, because of a fall, or after a local anesthetic. The area may be very sore and swelling and infection can occur. If a numb lip or cheek is sucked, bitten or rubbed, it can be damaged without the patient realising it. The area often looks like a chemical burn and may be misdiagnosed as such. Swelling and infection can occur because of a bitten lip or cheek. You can treat a bitten lip or cheek with warm, saltwater mouth rinses to promote healing (half a teaspoon of salt in a cup of lukewarm water). Seek treatment from a dental practitioner or GP if you are concerned an infection present.
Lip, cheek or gum injury and bleeding
If you experience an injury to the lip, cheek or gums you should:
- Apply a clean bandage or folded handkerchief to the wound and apply firm pressure.
- Sit down and maintain the pressure for at least 10 minutes. Don’t lie down flat.
- If the bleeding cannot be controlled, seek immediate medical attention.
- If you are able to control the bleeding, use warm, saltwater mouth rinses until the wound has healed to reduce the risk of infection (half a teaspoon of salt in a cup of lukewarm water).
- Apply a cold compress to relieve swelling and pain.
- Seek dental or medical advice.
If you are having trouble eating or opening your mouth due to jaw pain, or you experience jaw pain when waking, seek medical or dental treatment to diagnose the source of the pain.
To alleviate jaw pain in the short term:
- apply a cold compress (an ice pack wrapped in a cloth).
- take pain medicine.