Dental emergencies are nothing to mess around with. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), 2 million people a year head to the emergency room for dental pain.
And in one year, more than 40 percent of adults felt pain in their mouth, and over $45 billion in productivity is lost because of dental emergencies, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you’re having pain, bleeding, swelling, or other unusual symptoms in your mouth, it’s best to seek urgent dental care before the underlying problem becomes worse, says ADA spokesperson Ana Paula Ferraz-Dougherty, DMD, a dentist in San Antonio, Texas. Ideally, though, “prevention is key,” she says.
“Instead of waiting until you’re in pain, doing your brushing, your flossing, eating a balanced diet, and getting your regular checkups with your dentist are the things that are going to help prevent dental issues.”
Even so, dental problems that require an urgent visit to the dentist do happen. Here’s what to look for.
Your gums are red, inflamed, or bleeding
Don’t ignore the early signs of gum disease: Get in to see the dentist as soon as possible. “The most common cause of bleeding gums is gum disease,” Dr. Ferraz-Dougherty says.
“If you have any signs of swollen gums or bleeding when you brush or eat, it’s important to see the dentist to get that gum disease treated before it progresses.”
At an early stage called gingivitis, gum disease may be able to be treated in the office with a cleaning, whereas more advanced stages may even require surgery, she says.
In addition, other diseases in the body may reveal themselves through gum problems, so it’s important to get them checked out right away.
“Underlying systemic disease can manifest initially as bleeding gums; this includes diabetes, leukemia, and [other] cancers,” says John L. Pfail, DDS, chairman of the Department of Dentistry for The Mount Sinai Health System in New York.
Because of high glucose in saliva, people with diabetes are also at higher risk of gum disease.
Your gums are pulling away from your teeth
If your gums are receding and exposing more of your teeth, “that’s a sign of a more advanced stage of gum disease,” Dr. Ferraz-Dougherty says. “If uncontrolled, gum disease puts you at higher risk for other health issues as well. There are links between gum diseases and cardiovascular disease and diabetes so it’s important to see your dentist so that the gum disease can be treated before it progresses or affects your health in another way.”
Your teeth feel loose or fall out
Losing teeth is only normal for children—not adults. If you feel like your teeth are shifting, moving around in your mouth, or any actually fall out, see a dentist pronto. Besides a blow to the mouth, what can cause teeth to come loose?
“If left untreated, gingivitis can progress to disease which involves the bone surrounding the teeth, which in turn leads to loose teeth, pain, and the eventual loss of teeth,” Dr. Pfail says.
“Teeth are secured into the mouth by bone and a thin muscle attachment called a periodontal ligament to the bone. Any damage to these structures surrounding your teeth can cause mobility of the teeth.”
In addition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that osteoporosis, bone loss that is common in older people, may also cause teeth to become loose through a weakening of the jaw bone. Women with osteoporosis are three times more likely to have tooth loss than those who don’t have it, says the NIH.
You crack a tooth
A cracked tooth requires an emergency visit to a dentist because if left untreated, not only can it cause pain and sensitivity, but it also creates a pathway for bacteria to enter the tooth, possibly leading to infection.
“The sooner the better if you feel like you cracked your tooth,” Dr. Ferraz-Dougherty says. “If it’s just a small crack we can fix it with a filling; if it’s a bigger crack it may need a root canal. Sometimes we cannot even save the tooth—if it’s cracked too far down the tooth may need to be extracted.”
A potential cause of cracked teeth, she says, is teeth grinding, so if you grind your teeth, “it’s important to get evaluated, as you may need a nightguard to help protect your teeth when you sleep, which is when the majority of people grind them.”
You have pus collecting in your mouth
Yes, gross: If you notice any pus in your mouth, call your dentist right away. “Pus collection in a spot in the mouth can be a dental or gum abscess and should be addressed immediately,” says Uchenna Akosa, DDS, director of Rutgers Health University Dental Associates in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“It is a sign of infection and can spread if not treated and cause more serious medical problems.” In the most extreme cases, she says, “bacteria from an abscessed tooth can spread to the brain and can be fatal.”
Untreated dental infections can also lead to sepsis. Antibiotics, draining the infection, and a root canal is possible treatment options to help prevent these complications. But if your dentist prescribes antibiotics, ask these questions first.