Here’s a quick way to ruin a vacation: Break one of your teeth.
While the physical lives of children are more likely to result in cracked teeth than most adults’ lifestyles, the reality is that anyone can chip or break a tooth. Teeth that have been weakened by cavities or old dental work are especially prone to chips and breaks, but no teeth are immune. Teeth can crack or break due to a wide variety of causes, including:
Biting into something hard, such as hard candy, ice, or nuts
Aggressively grinding the teeth
Subjecting teeth to extreme temperature swings, such as drinking a hot beverage immediately after having a bowl of ice cream
Accidentally hitting a tooth on a hard surface
Sustaining a blow to the face (e.g. during athletic endeavors or because of a car accident)
In some cases, people may crack a tooth without even realizing it. (This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to maintain regular dental checkups—your dentist can identify any damage to your teeth that has gone unnoticed in your daily life.) In others, it will be clear that a tooth is chipped or broken because of symptoms such as pain that flares up after you bite down, sensitivity to hot or cold liquids, or feeling the chip or break with your tongue. You may even feel part of the tooth fall into (or out of) your mouth when the chip or break occurs.
If you suspect for any reason that one of your teeth is chipped or broken, your first response should be to call your dentist right away. Clearly describe your symptoms so your dentist can determine how quickly you need to be seen. Seeing your dentist is important even if you aren’t experiencing pain, because chipped or otherwise damaged teeth are more susceptible to further damage or infection.
While you’re waiting for your appointment, take the following steps:
Save the tooth (if applicable). If a tooth chip has fallen out of your mouth, try to save it. If an entire tooth has fallen out, find the tooth and gently rinse it with milk or water. (Do not scrape at the tooth, as this harms the periodontal ligament tissue and decreases the likelihood that your dentist will be able to reattach the tooth.) If possible, gently put the tooth back in its socket. If that’s not feasible, store the tooth in cold milk, salt water, or even a little puddle of saliva until you’re able to see your dentist.
Take stock. Notice where the pain is and how it manifests. For example, does the pain get worse when you chew, eat sticky foods, or sip cold liquids? This information will be useful to your dentist.
Take care of the painful area. Gently rinse your mouth with warm salt water to help keep the area around your damaged tooth clean. If the area near the damaged tooth is bleeding, use sterile gauze to apply light pressure in order to stop the bleeding. Don’t eat anything hard or sticky, and avoid chewing on the side of your mouth with the damaged tooth. If you’re experiencing pain, two strategies can help: Apply a cold pack to the cheek or lips above the damaged tooth, and/or take an over-the-counter pain reliever.
Protect the rest of your mouth. If the chip or break has resulted in your tooth developing a very sharp edge, try to cover the point with wax paraffin, dental cement, or sugarless chewing gum to help protect your inner cheeks, lips, and tongue from potential scratches or cuts.
Once you see your dentist, they will be able to determine the appropriate course of treatment. Some cracks are minor enough that they’re merely a cosmetic concern, while others might require treatment such as a filling, root canal, veneers, or (in extreme cases) tooth removal. Bottom line? A quick call to the dentist and a little self-care will significantly reduce the trauma of damaging a tooth.