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I Have a Dental Emergency. Should I Go to the Hospital or Dentist?

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Updated June 09, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: I Have a Dental Emergency. Should I Go to the Hospital or Dentist?

Dental emergencies can occur at anytime, and like other medical emergencies, they require different levels of care.

Answer:

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.

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 abcess 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.

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. 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.

Dental emergencies should always be handled seriously. Preparing yourself in advance to handle a dental emergency when one occurs is invaluable knowledge that every member of the family should possess.

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