Updated: Apr 26
You should not go to the emergency room if you're having tooth pain because they won't be able to do much for you and doctors recommend against it. The only exception would be if your dentist was closed in the middle of the night and you don't think you'll last throughout the night with the pain...
Nonetheless, if you still choose to go you'll find yourself waiting in the ER for about 8-12 hours only to be sent home afterwards without any dental treatment being done. You'll most likely leave with some antibiotics and pain medication but is it really worth spending half your day there?
This article will explain why it isn't really worth your time nor money to make a trip to the ER for a toothache. Although there is one exception where you can go to the emergency room for tooth pain. Aside from that, you really shouldn't go to the ER but we'll tell you what you should do instead.
Table of Contents:
The ER can't really help you with tooth pain
The emergency room can't treat a toothache because they don't have dental equipment nor do they have a dentist working in the ER.
No dental equipment
Have you ever seen a dental chair in the emergency room? The answer is probably a resounding "no." The reason they don't have one is because they're not equipped to deal with dental emergencies. Without a dental chair, a dentist can't work nor can they even provide proper care. The most you'll get is a verbal consultation without any treatment being done whatsoever.
No dentist on staff
All emergency rooms across the country do NOT have a dentist on staff. If you're having tooth pain and you go to the ER expecting to be treated by a dentist, you may be out of luck because you won't find one there.
Hospitals may have a separate dental department within the compound but they are not a part of the ER. The dental clinic runs on its own schedule and has normal work hours. They are not open 24/7 like the emergency room is.
Sometimes the ER may have some of the dentists from their dental department "on call" but what they can do for you in the middle of the night is pretty limited because they don't have any of their equipment available. Unfortunately dentists can't work without their chair nor without their equipment.
This is what will happen even if a dentist on call comes to see you in the ER:
Evaluate you and tell you what is the cause of your pain.
Prescribe you pain medication and antibiotics.
Tell you to come into their dental clinic the next morning.
Basically, they won't be able to treat the source of your toothache.
Doctors don't recommend going to the ER for tooth pain
We typically do not recommend going to the ER for tooth pain because there isn't much that can be done to fix the source of your pain. There is no dental chair nor dental equipment available in the emergency room so what your dentist on call can do is pretty limited. If there was no dentist on call then you would be seeing a physician and they are certainly not trained in treating tooth pain.
What will happen is that you may be prescribed antibiotics and pain medication only to be sent home after sitting at the ER for 8-12 hours.
That happens far too often because we see it all the time. The ER is reserved for life threatening situations such as uncontrolled bleeding or patients that may potentially pass away at any moment's notice. An unbearable toothache may seem like your life is in danger but it usually isn't.
Overall, there isn't much that can be done for your tooth pain by going to the ER. In fact, you can just take over the counter pain medications at home and just try your best to get a dentist appointment early next morning. The results would be fairly similar to going to the ER. It would also be a lot less expensive.
Exception: The one time you SHOULD go to the ER
Despite everything that we've just told you about how the ER can't help you nor is it recommended for you to go if you're having tooth pain... There is one situation where you SHOULD go to the ER and that is if you're having unbearable tooth pain WITH facial swelling. The swollen face is an indication of a growing dental abscess.
The first step of treating a dental abscess can indeed be performed at the ER because all it requires is for the infection to be drained. This procedure is called an incision and drainage, which does not require a dental chair. It would be helpful if there was one but this procedure can be routinely performed in the ER.
If you notice one side of your face swelling up and it looks significantly larger than the other side, you should not wait until the morning for a dentist appointment. You should try to go to the ER and have it drained as soon as possible.
A drain is literally just a plastic tube that is sutured into the abscess in order to allow it to continuing draining.
Last but not least, the reason why we recommend having the abscess drained as soon as possible is because that steps need to be completed at least 2-3 days before you get actual dental treatment for the source of the infection. What we mean by this is that even if you went to the dentist, you would still need the infection drained and then wait 2-3 days before going back for additional treatment.
This additional treatment may be a root canal or a tooth extraction. Unfortunately there are times where they cannot perform a root canal or tooth extraction on the same day as draining the abscess because there is just too much infection. You need to clear it out first so that the dentist has a proper working field.
What you should do instead
Unless your toothache is accompanied by facial swelling, it may not be worth your time to go to the ER since there isn't much that they can do for you. You would just be sitting around in the emergency room for 8-12 hours only to be sent home with pain medication.
That is something which you could've taken from your own medicine cabinet. There is also the fact that a ER visit is not cheap. You can certainly save a lot more money if you take over the counter pain medication and then get a dentist appointment the next morning!
For severe tooth pain this is what you can try to help hold you over until your dental appointment:
Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to kill the pain.
Use a cold compress, 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off while alternating.
Keep your mouth as clean as possible by brushing and flossing. Sometimes food and plaque that remain on your teeth can cause irritation.
Some people find that a salt water rinse can help.
Don't worry, you'll make it to the dentist the next morning because everyone does. It may feel like your life is about to end but it surely won't. As long as your face isn't swollen, you should be fine!
If you're nearby in NYC, our we do offer emergency dental services in Long Island City.