10 Signs You’re Headed For a Dental Emergency

Updated: May 07, 2021

When it comes to oral health, don't ignore these seemingly "small" problems as they can quickly turn into big, painful, expensive ones!


“My tooth is killing me”

Toothaches are, unsurprisingly, the most common indication that something is wrong with your teeth. But there’s the dull no-ice-in-my-water ache and then there’s kill-me-now-and-put-me-out-of-my-misery shooting pain. So how do you know when it’s headed for an emergency? Simple, says Ryan Stratton, DMD, an endodontist and dental emergency expert at Clear Creek Endodontics. “If the pain suddenly increases in magnitude or frequency, you’ve got a potential tooth problem like a cavity, crack, or abscess,” he explains. “You’ll know when it goes beyond ‘sensitive teeth’ if the pain lingers after being provoked by touch, temperature, or chewing.” Here are secrets dentists wish they could tell you.

“Does the Tooth Fairy visit 45-year-olds?”

Grown-ups should not have loose teeth—ever. If yours feel wiggly, even if they’re not painful, get to a dentist immediately as it could mean a tooth injury or localized infection, Stratton says. If the loose tooth is accompanied by red and bleeding gums it could indicate advanced gum disease, he adds. Left untreated, in rare cases gum disease can cause heart disease and even a heart attack.

Woman checking teeth in mirror. Female at the dentist office.

“People keep asking me if I got a chin implant but my jaw’s just gotten bigger”

Swelling along your jaw or around your mouth can mean anything from an infected zit to a swollen lymph node to a gum or tooth infection. And rarely, Stratton says, it can even be a symptom of cancer. If you’re severely swollen and/or in extreme pain, you’re already in a dental crisis and should seek help immediately, he explains. But if it’s just tender or a little swollen it’s fine to watch it and wait to see if it goes away on its own within a week or two.  Here are other potentially serious illnesses your teeth can reveal.

High angle view of female patient being examined by dentist in clinic

“My toothache must be better because now I can’t feel anything”

The sudden cessation of a terrible toothache may seem like you won the cavity lottery but don’t get too comfortable. If you’re experiencing numbness or a total lack of sensation in that area it might mean that the infection has progressed so far that you have an abscess close to a nerve and are this close to needing a root canal, Stratton says.

Tired African American employee in formal wear fall asleep after long working hours in office
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“I’m so tired all the time”

“Often I’ll see patients who complain of a general sense of malaise or feeling worn down all the time which can indicate a low-level oral infection,” he says. It can be hard to separate from the exhaustion most of us feel on a regular basis, but if you are consistently feeling tired all the time and unwell it’s worth getting your oral health checked out to rule out any gum or tooth disease. Here are surprising diseases dentists detect first.

Closeup photo of man showing his tongue

“My tongue tastes like pennies”

Unless you really have been licking pennies, having a metallic or bitter taste in your mouth can mean a problem with your teeth—most likely a broken filling, according to Stratton. “People who have older metal fillings really can taste them if they become lose, cracked, or fall off,” he explains, adding that it’s important to get a broken filling fixed as soon as possible so it doesn’t turn into a bigger problem that would need a crown or root canal.

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“My jaw hurts all the time, I must be working too hard”

Jaw pain can come from many sources besides a problem tooth—clenching your teeth at night, bruxism, TMJ syndrome, joint pain, arthritis and, yes, even stress.  “It can be hard to tell what is jaw pain and what is tooth pain as the two often mimic each other,” Stratton says. “But if you have deep, consistent jaw pain, 90 percent of the time it’s due to a cracked or infected tooth.” Still not sure? See your dentist or an oral specialist ASAP as they’re equipped to find the true source of your pain and fix it.  Here are ways to keep your teeth white and healthy.

Brain diseases problem cause chronic severe headache migraine. Male adult look tired and stressed out depressed, having mental problem trouble, medical concept
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“I’ve had this *#$%* headache for a month”

Headaches on their own can come from almost anywhere (and sometimes seemingly nowhere) but if yours corresponds with a toothache, the pains may be related. “All the nerves in the head, including those from your teeth, go into the brain so there’s that cross connectivity,” Stratton says. So be sure to mention any chronic headaches to your dentist; don’t write them off as nothing.

Sick businesswoman with seasonal winter flu blowing her nose in a tissue as she sits at her desk in a warm thick woollen scarf

“I just can’t kick this cold”

“Anytime you have a fever it means you’re fighting an infection and if that’s combined with a toothache it’s possible you have a gum infection or tooth abscess,” Stratton says. So if you find yourself with a chronic headache and a low-grade fever that lasts for more than a week, along with oral pain, see your dentist, stat.

Close up of smiling black woman at dentist
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“I burned the roof of my mouth… a month ago”

Who hasn’t burned, bit, or scratched their mouth before? You’re so hungry and that pizza smells so good! Or perhaps you’ve bitten a crispy corn chip in just the wrong way and stabbed your gums. Or you got a cold sore and accidentally bit it one (or one hundred) times. But while oral burns, cuts, and abrasions can be incredibly painful they’re not normally dental emergencies, Stratton says. The exception is if it lingers or gets infected. “Your mouth heals from injury very quickly so if it doesn’t go away within two weeks then call your doctor as something else may be wrong,” he explains. Watch out for these everyday mistakes that are ruining your teeth.