After a long Saturday of errands and chores, you're excited to have a relaxing night curled up on the couch with your spouse. And now that the kids are in bed, it's time to find a new show to binge watch.
You've decided on a show - and naturally, you reach for that bag of popcorn. But before you know it: You're grimacing in pain after your first few bites. You fear that you've cracked a tooth and might need a dentist. But wait: It's a Saturday night.
These scenarios happen all too often. Just like medical emergencies, dental emergencies can happen anytime, anywhere, and can become very costly if you don't have dental insurance.
But first: What, exactly, constitutes a dental emergency?
Defining a dental emergency
It's easy to tell the difference between a slightly sprained ankle and a severely broken bone: One needs some ice and support, while the other needs a trip to the ER and potential surgery.
But how do you know if your teeth simply need some bonding or if you should be calling an emergency dentist?
Colgate defines a dental emergency as mouth trauma that can result in gum lacerations and bleeding, a fractured or dislodged tooth, or the need for immediate medical attention.
Pain is the first sign to look for in a dental emergency. Tooth or gum injuries can result in damaged nerves and blood vessels, an infection can follow shortly after. Untreated infections can spread to the head and neck resulting in serious, sometimes life-threatening, problems.
When dental emergencies happen, you need to be familiar with the types and severity of common emergencies.
Types of dental problems
Dental emergencies come in different forms with varying degrees of seriousness. Here's a summary of six common dental emergencies - each defined by AAFP - as well as their signs, symptoms, and treatments.
Abscess: A localized bacterial infection of a tooth. Pain and swelling are telltale signs of an abscess. Treatment options include a root canal or tooth extraction.
Cellulitis: Occurs when a bacterial infection spreads to a tooth’s surrounding soft tissues. The affected area will be swollen and painful. Left untreated, the infection can spread to the head, neck, and lymph nodes. The patient will probably need a round of antibiotics and a root canal or tooth extraction.
Pericoronitis: Occurs when the soft tissues surrounding the crown of a partially erupted tooth becomes inflamed. This typically occurs with wisdom teeth.
Food debris and bacterial plaque can become trapped under the gum flap of the tooth, causing inflammation. Besides the swollen gum flap, other symptoms include pain, tenderness, and a bad taste in your mouth caused by pus oozing from beneath the gum flap. Hot, salty mouthwash paired with antibiotics might help alleviate this problem.
Tooth fracture: More commonly referred to as a broken tooth, these types of fractures are solely limited to the enamel and a small amount of dentin, while other fractures will extend to the crown, root, or both. Fractures with "exposed pulp" are quite painful and should be treated quickly.
Tooth luxation: Luxations mean the tooth has become dislodged from the ligaments and tissues that hold it in place. A dentist should diagnose the severity of the luxation while determining the course of treatment, which can involve a root canal in some cases.
Tooth avulsion: Arguably the most serious dental emergency, a tooth avulsion is the loss of a tooth. Be careful not to touch or attempt to clean the tooth’s root. Instead, seek immediate dental care for a tooth avulsion.
Costs of dental emergencies
The costs can certainly make you reach deep into your wallet, especially if you don’t have dental insurance. As examples:
Root canal costs depend on which tooth the procedure is being performed on: A front tooth will cost between $700 and $900, while a bicuspid can range between $800 and $950. Molars will run from $1,000 to $1,200.
Dental crown costs depend on the material the crown is made of: Porcelain crowns cost between $1,200 and $1,500, while metal crowns cost between $1,200 and $1,400. Porcelain fused to metal crowns run slightly less, costing between $1,000 and $1,150.
Affordable and practical payment option tips
If you don't have dental insurance, here are five options for funding dental emergencies:
1. Dental savings plan
A dental savings plan is not dental insurance, but can come in handy in emergency situations.
Once you sign up for the plan, you gain access to a pool of participating dentists in your area. Plan members pay an annual fee that typically falls in the $100 to $200 range, and you can receive services typically within a few days of signing up.
Each participating dentist offers their services at discounted rates that range from 10% to 60%. The rates are determined by a fee schedule that details the cost associated with a specific procedure.
2. Dental payment plans
Financing is another option if you don’t have the immediate funds to pay for a dental emergency. Some dentists offer financing plans to their uninsured patients who might need expensive procedures. The plans tend to be no-fee financing, which simply means that you don’t pay interest.
Dental payment plans allow patients to afford cosmetic procedures or those stemming from a pre-existing condition.
3. Government assistance
Government resources such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) may be available to those who qualify.
Medicare dental coverage doesn’t typically cover dental procedures, so it's wise to shop around for Medicare Advantage and supplemental plans.
Medicaid provides medical benefits, including some dental benefits, to those who qualify. People age 21 and over are eligible for emergency dental services only, while those under age 21 qualify for more extensive dental coverage.
The CHIP program offers medical coverage and some dental services to children up to age 19 who don’t have insurance. The specific dental services offered vary per state.
4. Emergency room visits
Visiting a hospital emergency room is a temporary option for an extreme dental emergency. The ER doctors probably won’t be able to fix the dental issue, but they'll be able to treat secondary symptoms like pain or bleeding.
This option will only hold you over until you can see an emergency dentist. The cost for treating those medical issues should be picked up by your health insurance though.
5. Options for lesser emergencies
If your dental emergency doesn’t require immediate attention, you can try options like seeking out local dental schools, dental charities, and free dental clinics. These options may provide some dental services at a low cost or for free in some cases.
Injury and accident prevention
While you can’t prevent all accidents from happening, you can take some precautions to limit your risk. Mouth Healthy has three basic tips to keep your teeth intact:
Wear a mouthguard when playing a sport. It only takes seconds to pop a mouthguard in, which will protect your teeth and tongue from serious injuries.
Watch what you chew. Despite the temptation, don’t chew on ice cubes, popcorn kernels, and hard candy. All three can easily crack a tooth.
Your teeth are for chewing, not cutting. Leave cutting to a good pair of scissors.
Explore dental insurance options
Though we covered some options of what to do when you have a dental emergency with no insurance, the best way to protect yourself is to just get dental insurance if you can afford it.
Don't let dental emergencies chomp away at your finances: Find and compare affordable dental insurance plans in your area - whether you're looking for a long-term dental plan or temporary dental insurance option.