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It’s the middle of the night and you have a dental problem. Is it worth a late-night call to your dentist or should you pack up and head to the emergency room now? Learn how to recognize a dental emergency and what you should do when you encounter one.

What is a dental emergency?

Dental emergencies require immediate attention to relieve severe pain, treat the high risk of infection or save a tooth that is at risk. Sometimes an accident knocks out a tooth and the emergency is obvious, but other times you may have pain or discomfort and not know what to do. Lost fillings, chipped veneers and broken dental appliances are annoying, but they don’t require emergency dental care. Here are some examples of dental emergencies where you should act quickly:

Cracked, Broken or Knocked-Out Teeth

For small chips and minor fractures, you may be able to wait to call the dentist during normal business hours. However, if your tooth has a severe crack, a large piece missing, nerve damage or has been knocked loose or completely out, seek immediate medical attention.

While you wait to be seen, there are a couple of things you can do to help relieve the pain and save the tooth. If your tooth is broken, rinse out your mouth with warm water to clean the area, and then put a cold compress on your face to keep the swelling down.

If your tooth has been knocked out, handle it as little as possible and don’t touch the root. The American Dental Association recommends that you try to place the tooth back in the socket without touching the root. Sometimes biting down on wet gauze or tea bag can help, but be careful not to swallow the tooth. If that doesn’t work, place the tooth between your cheek and gum or in a container of milk or saliva until you can be seen by a dentist. A cold, wet compress can help with any bleeding.

Tooth, Teeth or Jaw Pain

If you are experiencing severe and lasting pain in your tooth or jaw, it’s time to contact your dentist. This is especially true if the pain is accompanied by swelling, fever, a bad taste in your mouth or difficulty swallowing. These symptoms usually indicate an infection is present, and you’ll need a dentist to examine your mouth and provide proper treatment. You may have an abscessed tooth, which is an infection in the tooth’s pulp canal system. Treatment may require antibiotics, drainage of the infection or a root canal.

Bleeding or Aching Gums

A little bit of bleeding when you floss your teeth may be an early sign of gingivitis, but it doesn’t require a late-night phone call. However, if the bleeding is excessive and recurring, it’s time to contact your dentist and set up an appointment. Bleeding and aching gums are a common sign of periodontal disease, and it’s important to begin treatment as early as possible to keep your gums, teeth and supporting tissue and bone healthy. Treatment will vary depending on the severity of the disease.

What To Do If You Need Emergency Dental Care

If you have a dental emergency, call your dentist’s office first. Even if the office is closed, there may be an emergency number or instructions in the voicemail message. You can also check their website for an emergency phone number. If your treatment can wait until the next business day, go ahead and leave a message. Dental offices often leave appointments open for emergency cases, and they may be able to see you quickly.

If you are unable to get in touch with your dentist, head to the nearest emergency room. There the staff can determine if you need to see a dentist immediately and provide pain medication to help relieve symptoms.