Routine dental care problems can be managed in a dental office, whereas dental emergencies should be referred to the hospital emergency department. If you encounter a dental issue and are uncertain about what qualifies as a dental emergency, here's how to determine what kind of dental care you need and how to locate an emergency dentist if you need one.
Common Dental Emergencies
Dental emergencies are dental problems that require immediate treatment from a dentist. The South African Dental Association (SADA) explains that tooth injuries, such as cracking a tooth or having one knocked out, are common dental emergencies.
Tooth abscesses, which are infections that can develop if cavities aren't treated, are also sometimes considered emergencies. A tooth abscess can cause a severe toothache, facial swelling, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and even sepsis — all of which require immediate attention.
If you have a soft tissue injury, such as a bitten tongue or lip, this may also qualify as a dental emergency. In these scenarios, it is recommended gently cleaning the injured area with water and then applying a cold compress. If the bleeding doesn't stop, seek treatment right away.
Non-Emergency Dental Problems
Many dental problems are not considered emergencies. Cavities are one example of a common non-emergency dental issue. Still, you should seek treatment promptly. If you have a cavity, you may experience a toothache, tooth sensitivity or pain when you bite down. Untreated cavities can lead to many complications, including tooth abscesses, so it's important to schedule a visit with your dentist as soon as possible to avoid needing an emergency dentist later on.
When faced with a non-emergency dental issue, you should still call your dentist to schedule a visit as soon as possible, though treatment isn't an immediate necessity.
Finding an Emergency Dentist
If you think you're experiencing a dental emergency, contact your dentist immediately. Most dentists set aside time in their schedules for emergency patients, so you may be able to see your dentist right away. If you're located far away from your dentist's office, you can visit the South African Dental Association's website to find a certified dentist near you.
If you experience a dental emergency outside of normal business hours — whether it's overnight, on the weekend or during a holiday — still try calling your dentist. Their voicemail message may offer instructions for emergencies or provide the phone number for a local on-call emergency dentist.
If you can't find an emergency dentist through your regular provider or via the SADA dentist locator tool, go to your local hospital's emergency room. This option is not ideal, however, since most hospitals aren't equipped to treat dental conditions, and treatment is usually limited to antibiotics or painkillers. While these may help with an infection or severe pain, you'll still need to see your dentist as soon as possible to address the underlying dental problem.
Treatment for Dental Emergencies
Once you've found a dentist, they will evaluate the nature of your dental emergency and determine the best treatment option.
If your tooth has been knocked out, the dentist may attempt to put it back in place. This is more likely to be successful if you see your dentist within 30 minutes of the injury, explains the Endodontic Society of South Africa (ESOC), though it may still be possible if the tooth has been knocked out for longer.
The ESOC also notes that restorations, such as fillings or crowns, may be used to repair cracked teeth. However, teeth that are too severely damaged may need to be extracted.
If you experience a tooth abscess, the goal is to get rid of the infection. An emergency dentist may make a small cut in the abscess to drain the pus, and sometimes, a root canal may also be necessary. If the tooth can't be saved, the dentist will extract it.
A dental emergency can certainly be scary, but rest assured that there are emergency dentists available 24/7 to ensure that you receive the treatment you need, whether they be your regular dentist, an on-call specialist or an emergency medicine provider.