Is It A Dental Emergency? If So, Where To Go

If you are facing an emergency dental situation, you may be at a loss about where to go for care. Sure, if you have a private dentist, calling the answering service will result in either an after-hours appointment with him/her or a referral to a covering dentist. But what if you don't have a regular dentist? What if you don't have dental insurance? Here is a quick guide to determining what constitutes an emergency and to accessing emergency care.

What exactly is an emergency?

If you've got a bad toothache, it may feel like an emergency--but it may not qualify as one. Dental emergencies include the following situations:

  • knocked out tooth

  • tooth knocked out of alignment

  • cracked or fractured (not just chipped) tooth

  • tissue injury inside the mouth (such as a laceration, puncture wound, or tear)

  • severe toothache accompanied by facial swelling and pain

All of these situations are dental emergencies, as they are all characterized by extreme pain. They all require the immediate attention of a dentist, and in some cases, antibiotic medication to prevent infection from spreading elsewhere in the body. A mild to moderate toothache, loose or chipped tooth, and cold/heat sensitivity are all issues that can be handled at a regular dental appointment during business hours.

Where to go.

If you do not have a regular dentist, but do have dental insurance, call the member services number on the back of your insurance card and ask for information on emergency dental care providers in your area. You may be required to pay up front for the services and then submit a claim for reimbursement by the insurance company.

If you do not have dental insurance, you are not alone. Over 40% of Americans do not have dental insurance--that's about 130 million people. However, even without insurance, you have options for emergency care. You can:

  1. See a private dentist and enroll in a payment plan. Many dentists' offices offer financing through third-party companies. This allows you to obtain top rate dental care without having to pay the total amount right away. These plans are usually low or no interest.

  2. Go to a dental school. While dental schools are not likely to be open in the middle of the night, you can probably get an appointment that day or the next. Dental students need to accrue hours of practice and are supervised by licensed dentists. These schools usually offer services at low cost.

  3. Go to a dental charity. Many dentists and oral surgeons volunteer their time at community clinics. Services are either free or charged on a sliding scale according to your income. Call your local community helpline for a referral. Evening and weekend hours may be available.

  4. Go to the emergency room. This is the last resort option because emergency rooms usually do not offer dental services. Emergency physicians can diagnose your situation and prescribe painkilling and antibiotic medication, which may be invaluable while you search for more appropriate care.

If you need emergency dental care, try a private dentist first. It will be easier to follow up with him/her than with a dental student or a dentist who is volunteering at a charity or clinic. Also, you can continue to see this dentist once your emergency has been resolved and you need a routine cleaning and exam. Lastly, the office staff will be able to assist you with referrals to insurance plans so that you can obtain the dental coverage you need.

A dental emergency is never on anyone's schedule, but knowing ahead of time where you can go for care will help you be prepared.