Can dental emergencies be life threatening?

Girl sitting on in dental office

A sudden toothache or mouth trauma can disrupt your daily routine. A dental emergency can happen at any time, catching you off guard and causing pain and discomfort. While most emergencies are not life-threatening, some situations require immediate attention to prevent severe consequences.

This article will walk you through the common types of dental emergencies and their potential risks.

What Is a Dental Emergency?

A dental emergency can occur at any time and is often characterized by intense pain, broken teeth, loose teeth, or uncontrolled bleeding in the mouth. The type of damage could result from contact sports, a fall, or simply crunching down on a hard piece of food. 

Signs You Need Emergency Dental Treatment

Emergency dental care is essential in addressing severe oral health issues that can’t wait for a regular dental appointment. Here are some signs that you might need emergency dental help:

1. Severe Toothache

Intense tooth pain is a clear sign of a dental problem that requires immediate attention. A toothache can be caused by various issues, such as a cavity, an abscessed tooth, or gum disease. Ignoring a severe toothache can lead to further complications and potentially even tooth loss. Emergency dental care can relieve the pain and prevent further damage to the affected tooth.

But how can severe tooth pain be a life-threatening dental emergency?

In some cases, a severe toothache can be a sign of an abscessed tooth, which is a serious infection that can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. In rare cases, it can even lead to sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition.

2. Bleeding and Aching Gums

While some bleeding during brushing and flossing is normal, excessive or persistent bleeding could be a sign of gum disease or another dental health issue.

Bleeding and aching gums might not seem like a life-threatening condition at first, but they can potentially lead to serious health complications if left untreated. Bleeding and aching gums are usually symptoms of gum disease (gingivitis or periodontitis), which is an infection of the tissues that surround and support your teeth. If this infection is not treated promptly and properly, it can worsen over time and lead to tooth loss.

More seriously, gum infection can enter the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body. This can lead to a systemic infection known as sepsis, which is a life-threatening condition. People with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to this risk.

3. Jaw Pain and Inflammation

Swelling or knots on your gums or swelling around the jaw could be signs of a serious infection, such as an abscess.

If jaw pain and inflammation are not promptly treated, they can lead to several serious complications. The severity and type of complications largely depend on the underlying cause of the jaw pain and inflammation. Here are some possible outcomes:

  • Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMD): If left untreated, TMD can worsen over time, leading to chronic jaw pain, headaches, difficulty opening and closing the mouth, and even changes in the alignment of your teeth.
  • Dental Problems: Untreated jaw pain can also be indicative of dental issues like cavities, gum disease, or abscesses. If these conditions are not addressed, they can lead to tooth loss and potentially spread infection to other parts of the body.
  • Abscess or Infection: If the jaw pain and inflammation are due to an abscess or infection and it’s not treated, the infection can spread, leading to sepsis, a life-threatening condition.
  • Sinus Issues: If the source of the jaw pain is a sinus infection, leaving it untreated could lead to a chronic sinus infection or it could spread to the brain.
  • Heart Disease: Although less common, jaw pain could be a symptom of heart disease. If this is the case and it’s not treated promptly, it could result in serious cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack.
  • Osteomyelitis: This is an infection that travels through the bloodstream or spreads from nearby tissue to the bone. In severe cases, it can result in the need for surgery to remove sections of the infected bone.

In any case, prolonged jaw pain and inflammation should not be ignored. It’s crucial to seek emergency dental care to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

4. Cracked or Broken Tooth

A broken tooth can cause significant pain and lead to infection or damage to the inside of the tooth if left untreated. Not treating a cracked or broken tooth promptly can lead to several serious complications.

Here are some potential outcomes:

  • Tooth Loss: The ultimate result for many who leave a cracked tooth untreated is the loss of the tooth. A cracked tooth can progressively worsen over time, eventually resulting in the loss of the tooth.
  • Further Damage: A fractured tooth is at a higher risk of further damage if left untreated. The tooth’s structural integrity can be compromised, leading to additional breaks or cracks.
  • Gum Damage and Periodontitis: When left untreated, a broken tooth can result in gum damage and permanent damage to the tooth. Advanced gum disease (periodontitis) can also develop, which could cause further oral health problems.
  • Infection: Untreated cracked teeth can lead to bigger dental problems such as oral disease and infection. Infections can spread to other parts of the body if not promptly addressed.
  • Pain and Discomfort: Cracked or broken teeth can cause significant pain and discomfort, especially when chewing food or when the tooth is exposed to hot or cold temperatures.
  • Treatment Complications: If a cracked tooth is left untreated for a long time, treatment may become more complex. For example, a simple filling may no longer be sufficient, and a root canal or even tooth extraction may be necessary.

5. Dental Abscess

An abscessed tooth is a serious infection that occurs at the root of a tooth or between the tooth and gums. It’s often painful and can cause fever and swelling.

If left untreated, here are some possible risks:

  • Spread of Infection: Dental abscesses can lead to the spread of the infection to other parts of the body, including the jaw, neck, and head. In severe cases, the infection can even reach the brain, leading to potentially life-threatening conditions such as a brain abscess.
  • Sepsis: A tooth abscess can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening response to infection that can cause tissue damage, organ failure, and death.
  • Tooth Loss: If the abscess is not treated, it can lead to severe tooth decay, and the affected tooth may break or fall out.
  • Sinus Involvement: An abscess in an upper back tooth can spread to the sinus cavity, causing sinusitis or a sinus infection.
  • Damage to Surrounding Bone: The infection can spread to the bones supporting the tooth, causing bone loss and further complicating treatment.
  • Endocarditis: Although rare, bacteria from a dental abscess can enter the bloodstream and infect the inner lining of the heart (endocarditis), which is a serious condition.

6. Knocked-Out Tooth Due to Trauma or Injury

A knocked-out tooth, also known as an avulsed tooth, is a tooth that has been dislodged from its socket in the jawbone due to dental trauma or injury. This can happen as a result of accidents, sports injuries, or a blow to the face.

If a knocked-out tooth is not treated immediately, the chances of successfully reimplanting the tooth decrease significantly. Here are some potential outcomes if an avulsed tooth is not treated promptly:

  • Tooth Loss: If the tooth cannot be reimplanted, it may be lost permanently. This can lead to problems with speech and eating and may require a dental implant or bridge to replace the missing tooth.
  • Bone Loss: The absence of a tooth can lead to bone loss in the jaw over time. This can affect the stability of surrounding teeth and alter the structure of the face.
  • Infection: If the wound where the tooth was knocked out is not properly cleaned and treated, it can lead to infection.
  • Damage to Adjacent Teeth: The trauma that caused the tooth to be knocked out can also damage adjacent teeth, potentially leading to further tooth loss if not addressed.

Immediate action can often save a knocked-out tooth. If possible, the tooth should be placed back into the socket as soon as possible. If this isn’t possible, the tooth should be kept moist in milk or a tooth preservation product until you can see a dentist. Seek emergency dental care immediately.

7. Facial Swelling

Facial swelling could indicate a serious infection, such as an abscessed tooth or salivary gland infection, and should be addressed immediately. A dental abscess is a pocket of pus that forms in the tooth or gums as a result of a bacterial infection. It can cause severe pain, fever, swelling in the face or cheek, tender lymph nodes, and even difficulty breathing or swallowing.

If left untreated, facial swelling results in:

  • Spread of Infection: Dental infections can spread to other parts of the face and body if not treated promptly. This can result in severe health issues such as cellulitis (a skin infection), osteomyelitis (bone infection), or even life-threatening conditions like sepsis (body-wide infection).
  • Gum Disease Progression: If the cause of the swelling is advanced gum disease, leaving it untreated can result in further deterioration of the gums, loss of teeth, and potentially, damage to the jawbone.
  • Abscess Formation: An untreated dental infection can result in an abscess, which is a pocket of pus that forms due to the infection. This can cause severe pain and further swelling and may require surgical intervention.
  • Pericoronitis: This condition is inflammation of the tissue surrounding a partially erupted tooth, usually a wisdom tooth. If left untreated, symptoms such as bad breath, pus, and facial swelling can worsen, and the condition can become chronic or recurrent.
  • Difficulty Eating and Speaking: Untreated dental conditions leading to facial swelling can cause discomfort and difficulty while eating and speaking.
  • Aesthetic Concerns: Prolonged facial swelling can alter your appearance and affect your self-esteem.

Preventative Measures to Avoid Dental Emergencies

Dental emergencies can happen at the most unexpected times. However, with some proactive measures, the risk can be minimized. Adhering to these preventive steps can maintain oral health and prevent a seemingly minor dental concern from escalating into a life-threatening dental emergency.

  • Regular Check-Ups and Cleaning: Routine dental exams and professional cleaning can detect potential oral health issues early, preventing them from worsening into a dental emergency.
  • Proper Hygiene and Oral Health Care: Regular brushing, flossing, and mouthwash can maintain oral hygiene and decrease the probability of dental infections or other dental concerns.
  • Use of Protective Gear: Wearing mouthguards or other orthodontic appliances can protect your teeth from trauma and potential dental injuries if you engage in contact sports.
  • Safe Eating Habits: Avoid biting into hard or overly chewy foods to reduce the chance of tooth crack or mouth trauma. This measure can be particularly essential for those with crowns, veneers, or dental implants.
  • Use Fluoride Toothpaste and Mouth Rinse: Fluoride helps strengthen tooth enamel and prevent tooth decay.
  •  Avoid Using Teeth as Tools: Don’t use your teeth to open bottles or packages, as this can lead to chipped or broken teeth.
  • Address Persistent Dental Pain or Changes: If you notice any persistent pain or changes in your teeth, gums, or mouth tissues, seek dental advice promptly. Early treatment can often prevent a minor problem from becoming a major one.

Address Dental Emergencies Promptly With PK Cosmetic and Family Dentistry

Dental emergencies are not something to be taken lightly. They can worsen, leading to serious health concerns beyond oral health. Always consult with a dental professional in emergencies and maintain regular check-ups to combat any early signs of dental concerns. It’s also crucial to be aware of the signs of a life-threatening dental emergency so you know when to seek emergency dental treatment.

Do you have any concerns, or are you experiencing an emergency toothache? Schedule an appointment with us today!

We have a skilled team of professionals experienced in handling dental emergencies promptly and efficiently. We prioritize your dental health and provide a comfortable environment for all our patients. Our modern technology and equipment allow us to provide quick and effective treatment for any dental emergency.