What to do if you have a dental emergency during the lockdown

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, many services which require face-to-face appointments remain on hold. Whilst some, like hairdressing, are sorely missed, we can cope without them for a while. But what about essential health services such as dentists?

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Although it might be OK to postpone your regular check-up until after the lockdown lifts, dental emergencies happen and are too painful to ignore. So what should you do if you have a dental emergency during lockdown? And, importantly, what constitutes a dental emergency? Neil Banton, head of clinical services at Bupa Dental Care, explains.

Don't be shy

If you have a dental emergency you should contact your local practice, Banton says. Most practices are still offering telephone triage so you can be assessed while still at home, and then your dentist will provide advice accordingly.

Where appropriate, limited emergency treatment is available. Some dental issues can't be put off.

"Following the consultation with the dentist, if a patient has an urgent need for emergency treatment, the dentist will advise on the best course of action. This may be further advice, the provision of a prescription or referral to an Urgent Dental Centre."

NHS England is in the process of setting up Urgent Dental Centres to accommodate dental emergencies during the COVID-19 crisis.

Chip off the old block

Before calling your dentist it's important to understand what a dental emergency is. As mortifying as it may be for you, a chipped tooth isn't going to cut it.

According to Banton, the list of emergencies requiring urgent treatment includes:

  • Any type of facial swelling.
  • Excruciating pain causing a lack of sleep or concentration.
  • Mouth ulcers which haven't healed after two weeks.
  • Continuous bleeding after tooth extraction.
  • A broken tooth causing unmanageable pain and damage to the cheek or tongue.

"People experiencing any of these symptoms should contact their local practice as soon as possible."

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DIY dentistry

It's never a good idea to attempt a dental procedure on yourself, but there are a few things you can do to ease your pain.

Toothache

The most common dental problem people experience is toothache, Banton explains. Luckily, over-the-counter painkillers can help ease your discomfort.

"Reduce sugary or acidic foods, especially sweets or fizzy drinks - even diet ones - as these can aggravate the pain. It's also important to avoid extremes of temperatures, such as hot drinks and very cold foods."

Keeping your head elevated at night can also help, as can applying a cool pack or a packet of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel to your cheek, to keep the area cold and take down any inflammation.

Tooth sensitivity

Struggling to eat without sensitivity causing you pain? Unfortunately, you're going to have to ditch your sugary treats.

"If you have an extremely sensitive tooth and are in discomfort, again as with toothache, we recommend that you reduce sugar in your diet, or any foods which are very hot or cold," Banton adds.

"Continue to floss and brush your teeth as thoroughly as you can and rub sensitive toothpaste, such as Sensodyne or Colgate, directly on to the affected area and try leaving it on overnight."

Wisdom tooth pain

We all know the aggravation a wisdom tooth can cause, but thankfully there are a few simple things you can do to soothe the area.

"Rinsing your mouth with warm salt water as often as you can will be good for disinfecting the area. Using a mouthwash which is suitable for gum problems and that you are not allergic to is also good," Banton says.

"Keep the area cold by using a cool pack or a packet of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel and continue to clean your wisdom teeth thoroughly, even if it's painful to do so."

If you experience facial swelling or you struggle to open your mouth properly you should seek dental advice, he adds.

Bleeding gums

It's not normal to see blood when you brush your teeth, or for your gums to bleed during the day.

"This may be a result of gum disease and your gums will continue to bleed until your oral health improves," Banton explains.

"So, make sure you clean in between your teeth with floss or interdental brushes and follow up with a thorough toothbrush clean twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste."

Sharp pain

Experiencing sharp pain when biting or chewing? It could be a sign of tooth decay, a loose filing or a crack in your tooth, Banton says.

"If you're experiencing a sharp pain when biting down, avoid eating hard foods, like nuts or sweets, and ones which require a lot of chewing such as baguettes or tough meats. Also try to use the other side of your mouth for chewing where you can," he adds.

Swelling

If you have any type of facial swelling you should contact your dentist to be on the safe side.

"If the swelling is minor, your dentist may be able to prescribe you antibiotics over the phone. You can also use a cold compress or a packet of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel to bring down the swelling. Alternatively, try rinsing your mouth with warm salt water repeatedly until the swelling reduces," Banton says.

If your vision or breathing is affected, or the swelling is causing you to have trouble swallowing, you should visit A&E, he adds.

Ulcers

We all get ulcers from time to time, but they should disappear within 10 days.

"To relieve the pain, use mouth ulcer relief gel, available from most supermarkets or pharmacies. Cleaning the area with warm salt water as much as possible is also very effective."

If it hasn't disappeared after two weeks, call your dental practice.

Bleeding after a tooth removal

After you've had a tooth removed you expect there to be a bit of pain and bleeding, but continuous bleeding is dangerous.

Rinsing your mouth with warm, salty water can speed up the healing process, Banton says, and over-the-counter painkillers can take the edge off.

"If the socket is bleeding freely, bite down hard on a clean hankie or gauze if you have it for 20 minutes. If the bleeding hasn't stopped, call your local dental practice as soon as possible," he adds.

Orthodontic problems

The usual rules apply for people with orthodontics - avoid sugary foods and hard, sticky foods. You should also brush your teeth regularly.

If wires are digging into your gums it may be possible for someone in your household to use tweezers to turn the wire away, or try using orthodontic wax which is often available online, Banton says.

"If your braces do break, or you lose your retainers, then contact your local dental practice immediately. If your fixed retainer comes off completely, continue to wear your removable retainer at night," he adds.

Self-care

The best way to avoid a dental emergency is prevention. Looking after your teeth properly will help keep them strong and ward off decay.

Adults and children should be brushing twice a day, using fluoride toothpaste, for two minutes, Banton says.

He also recommends using electric toothbrushes as they are more effective and can reach spots ordinary toothbrushes can't. Plus they're kinder on your teeth and gums, he adds.

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