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Managing summer dental emergencies

Few disruptions can derail a summer vacation faster than a dental emergency.

A slip on a wet dock, a careless swing of a wiffleball bat, an errant elbow in a pickup basketball game – any or all could result in a tooth being knocked out.

No less unpredictable, tooth pain can come seemingly out of nowhere and can be agonizing. Worse, some dental pain may actually signal a more urgent issue like an infection or abscess.

Yet if a dental emergency presents itself and you’re an hour (or more) away from your dentist, what’s a person to do?

According to Mark Roettger, D.D.S., an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry and director of the University of Minnesota Physicians Dental Clinic, having a tooth knocked out is the most urgent dental trauma a patient can experience.

“A tooth that’s been knocked out needs to be re-implanted within about five minutes or there’s a good chance that the ligament holding the tooth to the bone won’t successfully re-develop,” said Roettger. “The thought may be hard for some people to stomach but really the only way to save the tooth is for a patient to push their tooth back into its socket and keep it there with pressure. Then get to a dentist as fast as you can.”

A tooth that’s been knocked out should be picked up by the crown, which is the whitest part of the tooth. Then, prior to reimplanting, Roettger said a tooth should be run under cold water for 10 seconds.

After the tooth is put back into the socket, patients should bite down on a clean wet washcloth or gauze to stabilize things while they head to the dentist.

If re-implanting the tooth isn’t an option, Roettger suggests storing the tooth in cold milk while traveling to the dentist. Yes….cold milk.

“Milk has the same osmotic pressure as the cells in the tooth that we’re trying to keep alive,” he said. “If a patient stores the tooth in water those cells can soak up water and burst. But milk helps buy us a little more time because it helps stabilize the situation. If you can get a tooth into cold milk within five minutes and rush to a dentist, we may be able to save the tooth.”

For patients battling tooth pain, the pain can be brutal and the situation could be a true emergency. To combat tooth pain, Roettger recommends a quick survey of the situation to determine the best path forward for patients who may be nowhere near a dental office.

“Patients suffering tooth pain need to start by determining the cause. Look for signs of a cracked or broken tooth, or for signs of swelling or redness around the gums that can signal inflammation or infection,” said Roettger. “Sometimes infections can be the source of tooth pain and can get ugly quickly – they can even become life threatening in some situations. So if you think you’re suffering an infection and can’t find a dentist it’s a good idea to get to an emergency room so the situation doesn’t escalate.”

For most non-critical toothaches, ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatories can help reduce pain. There are also topical medications that can help in the event there’s an opening in a patient’s tooth.

The best advice Roettger can give this summer: take your dentist’s phone number along with you.

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