What is a dental injury?
A dental injury is an injury to the mouth that causes broken, lost or displaced teeth or damaged gums.
If you have lost a tooth and managed to hold onto the tooth, there’s a good chance it can be saved if you can get to a hospital or dentist within 30 minutes. It may still be possible to save the tooth up to 3 hours after the injury.
What symptoms relate to a dental injury?
Sometimes damage to the teeth might not be visible. If a tooth is cracked, chipped or loose after an accident, it’s important to see a dentist as soon as possible to avoid long-term damage.
Other signs of dental injury are toothache and swelling of the gums.
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What causes a dental injury?
The most common causes of dental injuries include falling over, being hit in the face or having some kind of accident while playing sport. It is also possible to injure or break a tooth by eating something hard.
When should I see my doctor?
You should call an ambulance on triple zero (000) or go straight to the emergency department if:
- the person is having trouble breathing
- there is a lot of blood going down the throat
- the mouth or tongue are very swollen and it’s hard to breathe
If breathing is OK and the mouth isn’t bleeding too heavily, use a sterile dressing or a clean towel to apply firm but gentle pressure to the bleeding. Then go to your doctor or emergency department.
If your you or your child develops any of the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor:
- any difficulty talking or swallowing
- swollen lymph glands in the neck
- a fever (a temperature over 38⁰C)
If you or your child have a painful tooth, make an appointment with a dentist as soon as possible.
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Dental injury first aid
If one of your child’s first teeth is lost (a 'baby tooth'), don’t try to put it back in. Rinse your child’s mouth with salt water and use a cold compress if the mouth is swollen. Get advice from your pharmacist or doctor on pain relief medicines they can take. This does not apply for babies who are teething.
If an adult tooth is lost, don’t throw it away. Call a dentist urgently and ask for an emergency appointment (ideally within 30 minutes).
Make sure you handle the tooth very carefully — it is best to hold it by the crown or white part of the tooth. Don't touch the root. Don't scrub the tooth at all or rinse it with water. If the tooth has dirt on it, gently rinse it in milk. If milk is not available use saliva or a sterile saline solution (available from pharmacies).
If you are able to, push the tooth back into the socket it came from. Do this gently until you hear a click or the tooth is level with the other teeth. Then bite down gently on a clean cloth while travelling to the dentist for further assessment.
If it's not possible to put your tooth back in, place it in contact lens saline solution or milk immediately and go to the dentist, taking your tooth with you. Do not place your tooth in water as this can damage the tooth’s delicate cells.
If milk or sterile saline solution are not available, put the tooth very carefully in your mouth between your cheek and gum and go to the dentist. Be very careful not to swallow your tooth.
You can also use plastic wrap to protect the tooth. Spit some saliva into the plastic before wrapping the tooth.
If parts of your tooth have broken off, these should be placed in milk or a sterile saline solution and taken to your dentist.
If you have swelling, try using a cold compress against the side of your face to relieve pain and reduce the swelling. Wrap an ice pack in a cloth before placing it against your skin.
How is a dental injury diagnosed?
Your doctor or dentist will examine your teeth and may take an x-ray. They will ask you about your pain and talk about your dental history.
How is a dental injury treated?
Treatment will depend on the type of injury.
If the pulp of a tooth has been injured, you may need root canal therapy.
If the tooth is loose or has moved, your dentist will need to stabilise it until your mouth heals. They may do this by using a splint or bonding it to the next tooth.
A cracked or broken tooth may need to have a crown fitted. Crowns are made of porcelain or metal and make the tooth stronger and more stable.
If the tooth can’t be saved, then your dentist will discuss options with you. Some very severe dental injuries need surgery.
Can a dental injury be prevented?
Some activities are more likely than others to lead to accidents that cause dental injury. It’s best to wear a fitted mouthguard (one that’s custom-made by your dentist) to protect your teeth when doing activities such as:
- off-road bike riding
- rock climbing
- white-water rafting
- football — soccer, rugby, league or Australian Rules
Mouthguards that show signs of wear or damage need to be replaced.
Ask your dentist for advice about oral protection for yourself or your child.
Complications of a dental injury
There is a risk of infection after a dental injury. You can avoid this by keeping your mouth clean and following the advice of your dentist.
It’s important to fix a dental injury. If you don’t, you could develop long-term problems. It can make it harder for you to chew and swallow and can affect your nutrition and general health. Untreated dental problems can also affect your overall health.
Resources and support
Find out more about looking after your teeth on the Australian Dental Association’s website.
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Last reviewed: December 2019