How a Toothache Can Land You in the ER

Young girl holding an ice pack to her cheek to ease her toothache. An emergency room doctor in the background examines an x-ray of her teeth.

When your family’s schedule is already filled with meetings, homework and soccer practices, adding dentist appointments to that to-do list can feel daunting. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that according to USAToday, the number of people going to the hospitals for dental emergencies grows more and more every year, with one visit every 15 seconds.1 So, how can a toothache land you in the ER?

Know the signs of a problem

If you or your child experiences any of the following symptoms, it may be time to schedule an appointment with your dentist:

  • Sensitivity to hot or cold foods
  • Sensitivity to sweets
  • Discoloration
  • Mouth sores (canker sores, cold sores, etc.)
  • Redness, swelling or bleeding gums
  • Pain while chewing
  • Persistent foul breath
  • Jaw pain
  • Dry mouth

The following symptoms may signal an abscess that requires immediate medical attention:

  • Cracked, broken or loose teeth
  • Constant throbbing pain
  • Swollen face, jaw and/or neck glands
  • Pus or bad taste in mouth
  • Headache
  • Fever

Toothaches vs. Abscess

Toothaches can happen for a variety of reasons. A cavity or tooth decay starts when bacteria get where it shouldn’t and begins eating away at your teeth. Oftentimes, this can be fixed with a simple filling. Gum disease, periodontal disease or gingivitis is caused by inflamed gums that develop deep pockets where bacteria form. If left untreated, a toothache can develop. However, these can be treated with a deep cleaning. When your wisdom teeth begin to grow out, they often become impacted and start shifting around your other teeth and causing tooth pain.

Mild or moderate pain should never be ignored. Slight discomfort can quickly turn into a very serious condition called an abscess, a pus-filled infection inside a tooth or between the tooth and the tongue. While pain may start off as annoying, within a day it can turn into intense, throbbing pain or sharp, shooting pain. In America, this condition has turned into a dangerous trend, with hospitalizations for abscesses increasing by more than 40% in recent years.2

Abscesses occur when there’s a breach in your tooth’s enamel. If bacteria get inside the tooth, an abscess can form. These typically do not go away on their own and often spread overnight. If an infection manages to reach the brain or the heart, or the swelling cuts off an airway, it can become fatal.


The first step for preventing any tooth-related trip to the ER is taking your family to the dentist regularly. Many infections can be easily prevented if they are caught early on. Getting your teeth checked often means that your dentist can provide treatment before it gets worse. In the case of an abscess, if caught early enough, your dentist can save your natural tooth with a root canal. However, if left untreated, extraction of the infected tooth may be necessary.

Additionally, encourage good oral hygiene. Make sure your kids know how to brush and floss their teeth properly. Furthermore, teach your children that eating a lot of candy or drinking soda can increase their risk for getting a toothache or cavity.

Finally, while the emergency room should not act as your primary dental care provider, if your dentist is unavailable and you feel your situation warrants medical attention, St. Vincent Neighborhood Hospital can get you in front of a doctor within 15 minutes of your arrival.

In any situation, our emergency department is open to treat all injuries, infections and disease. Our fast turnaround times on x-ray and imagining services allow us to quickly diagnose the problem. Our in-house pharmaceutical services help us get you treated right away. Read more about our services or find the St. Vincent Neighborhood Hospital location nearest you.





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