Should I Go To a Hospital or a Dentist for my Dental Emergency?

medical professionals looking at woman's mouth
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Dental emergencies can occur at any time. Often, people are unsure whether they should go to a hospital or a dentist for a dental emergency. 

Should I Go To a Hospital or a Dentist for my Dental Emergency? 

The answer actually varies. Like other medical emergencies, dental emergencies require different levels of care, depending on their severity. 

Where you go for treatment when you have a dental emergency depends on the type of emergency you have.

When deciding where you should go for treatment consider, think of the following before making your decision.

When to Head to the Hospital

Dental emergencies, or traumas involving the face and mouth, that require immediate medical attention include:

  • jaw fractures
  • jaw dislocations
  • serious lacerations of the soft tissues of the face and mouth
  • an abscess or infection that is very swollen or that is impacting breathing or swallowing (particularly if you are immunocompromised)

Call 911 for Emergency Medical Services (EMS), or go directly to the hospital.

When to See the Dentist

There are other dental emergencies that are not considered life-threatening but that still may require immediate care.

  • A broken or cracked tooth
  • An avulsed (lost/knocked out) tooth
  • Pain from a decayed or abscessed tooth (not swollen, not impacting breathing or swallowing)

These do not necessarily require treatment at a hospital. However dental conditions can cause extreme pain and discomfort.

For many people who experience a serious dental issue the seriousness of the issue can feel worse because of how much your tooth can hurt.

If this discomfort lasts only moments, sensitivity to hot and cold foods generally does not signal a serious problem. The sensitivity may be caused by a small decay, a loose filling or by minimal gum recession that exposes small areas of the root surface.

Try using toothpastes made for sensitive teeth. Brush up and down with a soft brush; brushing sideways wears away exposed root surfaces. If this is unsuccessful after several days, see your general dentist.

There are several possible causes of this type of pain: decay, a loose filling or crack in the tooth. There may also be damage to the pulp tissue inside the tooth.

If the problem is pulp tissue damage, your dentist may send you to an endodontist. Endodontists are specialist dentists who specialize in pulp-related procedures. Your endodontist will perform a procedure that cleans out the damaged pulp and fills and seals the remaining space. This procedure is commonly called a root canal.

Your dentist should be the first person you call. Hospitals are not equipped to provide you with the treatment necessary to restore a tooth or provide other dental treatment that may be required. That care should be sought quickly, but it needn't be in an ER.

But My Dentist Isn't Available!

Dental emergencies do not always occur at an ideal time of day (as if there is one), so your dentist may not be able to see you when you need him to.

If the dental emergency occurs during non-business hours, on a weekend, or a holiday -- and it is not considered life-threatening -- always try calling your dentist before perusing alternative care options.

Many dentists provide their patients with after hours emergency care or an on-call substitute recommendation. Call your dentist's office and wait for the recorded message. If your dentist does provide his patients with after hours care, instructions for you to follow will be mentioned in the recording.

In cases where your dentist (or any dentist) is not able to see you after hours, but you still require treatment from a medical professional, proceed to the nearest care facility in your area. Keep in mind that they may not always be able to provide you with treatment, but every effort to manage your pain and discomfort will be made until you are able to get an appointment with your dentist.

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