It’s one of our nightmares…something happens to a tooth at night or over the weekend and you try to decide whether it is an emergency. A dental emergency can happen anytime, day or night. If you have ever experienced dental trauma or have an urgent need for assistance, you know how stressful it can be. Usually, you have to make a decision as to whether it is, in fact, an emergency that requires calling your dentist or if it is something that you can take care of at home. Everything can seem like an emergency when you are in pain. But, what constitutes a dental emergency? And, what should you do when the situation presents itself? At Sninski & Schmitt Family Dentistry, your dentist in Cary, we handle many emergency situations. In this article, we offer a guide for determining if you have a true dental emergency and, if so, the best way to handle it.

Urgent Dental Needs

Some dental emergency situations are urgent and others can be treated by a dental professional later. It is important to clarify the difference between an urgent need and one that can wait especially when the situation occurs during nighttime or over the weekend.

Here are some examples of urgent dental situations.

Life-Threatening Dental Emergencies

  • If you experience gums that will not stop bleeding or continue to get worse, call a dental professional or go to a hospital’s emergency room immediately. Bleeding gums could be from a trauma, accident, health condition, or other cause.
  • A soft-tissue infection with intraoral or extraoral swelling that potentially compromises your airway. Note that tooth infections can spread into the soft tissues causing swelling without causing pain.
  • Trauma involving facial bones can compromise your airway.
  • An untreated tooth infection can eventually lead to bacteria in the bloodstream called blood poisoning. This is also known as bacteremia or septicemia. If it is left untreated, septicemia can cause a severe whole-body infection called sepsis, which is life-threatening.

Dental Emergencies That Require a Dental Professional

Some common examples of dental emergencies that require urgent care by a dental professional include:

  • Severe tooth pain from a dying pulp and decay
  • Pain from post-extraction surgery or dry sockets
  • Abscesses or other infections that cause pain and swelling
  • Objects caught under the gums or between teeth causing pain and/or swelling
  • Tooth chips, fractures, or lost fillings that cause pain or trauma to the teeth, soft tissues, or both
  • Trauma to the teeth, causing one or more teeth to become loose, displaced or even lost
  • Orthodontic wires or other dental appliances becoming loose and cutting into the cheeks, gums, or both
  • Wisdom tooth pain
  • An injury to a bone in the face, for instance, the jaw
  • Swollen cheeks or face accompanied by a toothache
  • Painful swelling of the gums
  • Extreme tooth sensitivity that is new

Dental Concerns That Are Not Emergencies

Situations that aren’t dental emergencies and can wait until an available appointment include:

  • Lost or broken filling
  • Lost or separated crown
  • Broken bridge
  • Broken or cracked tooth
  • Food lodged between teeth
  • A mild toothache
  • A small chip in a tooth
  • Mild or newly onset tooth sensitivity

Causes for Dental Emergencies

Dental emergencies can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes dental emergencies are a result of negligence or letting a condition progress through non-action such as an infection left untreated. Other times dental emergencies come from unforeseen events like an accident. Oral conditions such as tooth decay, gum disease, old fillings, old crowns, and TMJ issues can contribute to emergency situations we see. Here are some common causes of dental emergencies.


Many emergencies are caused by simply eating. A crown that is getting loose can separate from the tooth by chewing, especially if you are eating something hard or sticky. Biting a raw carrot can cause a tooth to chip. Coming down so hard that your teeth knock together with too much force can cause a crack in a tooth. You can take precautions and avoid foods that are more likely to cause tooth damage. However, some types of tooth damage cannot be avoided or predicted.


Decay-related oral pain is a common cause of dental emergencies. A toothache can start off as a pain you can tolerate but then becomes unbearable quickly. If decay is causing a level of pain that is preventing you from sleeping, eating, or functioning comfortably, see your dentist. The best way to prevent tooth decay is by being consistent with your oral care routine. Flossing, brushing, and seeing the dentist regularly are the three things you can do to prevent decay and potential dental emergencies.


An accident can’t be predicted, and usually occurs at the most inopportune times (like weekends). An accident can cause tooth trauma such as chipped teeth, cracked teeth, loosened teeth, and teeth that are knocked out of place or out of the socket. Here are accidents that can cause dental emergencies that we see routinely:

  • Contact sports
  • Car accidents
  • Accidents at work
  • Falling

Some ways to help prevent dental emergencies from accidents include:

  • Wear a mouthguard during sports and physical activities.
  • Always use a seatbelt when in a car, and put young children in a car seat.
  • Don’t use your teeth as tools to tear or cut things.
  • Childproof your home to prevent falls and other injuries.

Steps to Take When You Have a Dental Emergency

You need to act immediately when you have a dental emergency that requires intervention with a dental professional. Call your dentist without delay! If it is after the dentist’s operating hours, there will be an on-call dentist with whom you can discuss your concerns. They will advise you as to proper action–whether you need immediate treatment, need to go to the ER, or can wait to schedule an appointment. Here are some specific steps you should take with certain conditions:

Tooth Trauma

If your child has a baby tooth knocked out, apply pressure to the area if it is bleeding. Then, call your child’s dental professional quickly. Do not attempt to put the tooth back into the socket because this can damage the permanent tooth growing under the gum.

If you have a permanent tooth knocked out, follow these steps:

  1. Locate the tooth if possible. If you find the tooth, hold it by the crown instead of the root.
  2. Do not scrub the tooth from the root. Do not use soap or chemicals on the tooth or dry the tooth.
  3. Place the tooth back into the socket and hold it in place to keep the tooth moist. It is imperative that the tooth is moist at all times. If you can’t place it in the tooth socket, then keep it in your mouth next to your cheek. If this isn’t possible, place the tooth in a clean holder with milk or saliva. An emergency tooth preservation solution can be purchased at drugstores for temporarily storing the tooth. Do not place the tooth in tap water.
  4. See your dentist immediately–if possible, within 30 minutes. There is, however, a chance you can save the tooth up to an hour of being out of the mouth.

If you have a chipped or broken tooth, it’s important to see your dentist for immediate treatment in order to prevent infection and possibly save the tooth.

Follow these steps for chipped, cracked, or broken teeth:

  • Rinse your mouth with warm water. Pay attention to whether there are rough edges, temperature sensitivity, or pain.
  • If the tooth trauma came from a blow to your face, put cold compresses on the area to reduce swelling.
  • See your dental professional as soon as possible. If you have located the piece of tooth, you should take it with you.

Laceration of the Tongue, Cheek, or Lip

If you bite or cut your tongue, cheek, or lip and it is bleeding, try not to panic. There are many blood vessels in mouth tissues, which cause a lot of blood and may look worse than the injury is. Most injuries in the mouth aren’t serious and will heal on their own.

  • Wash the area gently and control bleeding by using moist gauze or a towel on the injured area.
  • Keep pressure on the area until the bleeding stops.
  • After the bleeding stops, place a cold compress to reduce swelling.
  • Keep the area clean to avoid infections by rinsing with salt water or a mix of one part hydrogen peroxide and one part water several times a day.

If the area is bleeding profusely and you aren’t able to stop it, contact your doctor or go to the nearest emergency room, especially if the cut is deep or there is a puncture through the lip or cheek. Be aware of signs of infection like swelling, redness growing wider around the wound, fever, pus, or the wound continuing to be painful.

If you or your child has orthodontic braces and a wire or bracket is puncturing the cheek or gums, see your orthodontist about ways to correct the situation. Wax is a good way to take care of the problem temporarily.


Toothaches are unpleasant and, even if they don’t necessitate emergency steps, should be taken seriously. A toothache is usually symptomatic of a bigger issue or can lead to a more serious problem if ignored. A tooth that is causing pain could be due to dental decay, an infected pulp, a cracked tooth, something stuck between the teeth, gum disease, or sinus infections just to name a few reasons. Always contact your dental professional when you are experiencing tooth pain. They will be able to help you assess whether you should be seen immediately.

Here are some tips for dealing with toothache:

  • Floss gently to remove any food particles that have gotten trapped between teeth or in the gums.
  • Rinse with warm salt water.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever.
  • Place a cold compress on your cheek if you have swelling. Swelling can be an indication of infection or an abscess.

Contact Your Cary and Holly Springs Dentist When You Have Emergencies

If you are experiencing a dental emergency and need family dentistry, contact our team of dental professionals who have the experience you need. If you are looking for knowledgeable staff to help you maintain healthy teeth as well as take care of any emergency situations that arise, get in touch with us. We have two offices conveniently located in Holly Springs and Cary. If you would like to learn more, call us at 919-600-6262 (Holly Springs), 919-467-2203 (Cary), or fill out the form below.

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