Your teeth are strong —- really strong. In fact, tooth enamel is the hardest substance in your body. But strong as they are, your teeth aren’t superhuman. In fact, teeth can die just like any other living thing. And if you end up with a dead tooth, it is no laughing matter.
Not only can a dead tooth be unsightly and painful, but it puts you at risk for serious infection, abscess, and tooth loss. Because of this, it is important to know the symptoms of a dead tooth and understand when to seek treatment.
What is a Dead Tooth?
It’s strange to think of a tooth as dead. After all, isn’t it just a lump of enamel attached to your jaw? Actually, no. The outer layers of your tooth — the enamel, dentin and cementum — are hard and bone-like. But beneath this armor lies a chamber of soft, sensitive pulp that is very much alive with nerves, connective tissue, and blood vessels.
Like any other part of the body, when your tooth pulp loses its blood supply, it eventually dies. (I’ll get to how this happens in a minute). When the pulp in your tooth dies, your tooth becomes what dentists refer to as a non-vital, or necrotic, tooth. This non-vital tooth is what we commonly call a dead tooth.
Dead Teeth and Infection
Dead pulp isn’t actually the worst part about a dead tooth. According to the American Association of Endodontists, your teeth need their pulp as they grow and develop. However, once a tooth fully matures, it can be retained and function without the pulp because the surrounding tissues continue to nourish the tooth.
But this doesn’t mean you can just leave a dead tooth alone. The inside of your tooth stays healthy in part because living tissues transport white blood cells and other immune cells to the tooth pulp. When a tooth dies, this access is cut off. Without these immune cells, the pulp chamber can become a breeding ground for infection.
It goes without saying that an infection in your mouth is bad. But an infection caused by a dead tooth is particularly troublesome. Because the infection is deep within your tooth, it can spread to the bone and space around a tooth’s root(s). If left untreated, this infection can create a pocket of pus known as an abscess, and may cause significant pain and swelling.
As I said, a dead tooth is no joke. But what exactly causes a tooth to die in the first place?
Causes of a Dead Tooth
The two primary causes of a dead tooth are decay and trauma.
If decay reaches the center of your tooth either through a crack in the tooth or through an untreated cavity it will inflame the pulp. To protect itself, the blood vessels inside the pulp constrict. But eventually, without enough blood supply, the pulp dies.
A tooth can also die if it sustains a trauma such as a sports injury. If your tooth pushes upward into the bone or gets knocked out, the nerves can get pinched, cut off or damaged. If the blood supply at the tip of the tooth’s root is severed, the pulp dies from lack of blood flow in much the same way as it does from untreated decay.
Smell, Color and Other Symptoms of a Dead Tooth
Now that you know the seriousness of a dead tooth, you should understand the signs and symptoms.
Common symptoms of a dead tooth:
- Discoloration: A dead tooth often looks yellow, grey, or slightly black.
- Smell: A dead tooth sometimes smells bad or causes a bad taste in your mouth. This is from tooth decay or other infection.
- Pain: This pain comes from inflammation and infection in the pulp cavity or surrounding bone.
- Pimple at the gum line: This is a sign of a chronic tooth abscess that has made its way through the bone to the surface of your gums.
Treating a Dead Tooth
A dead tooth is commonly treated with endodontic therapy, commonly termed a root canal. During a root canal, your dentist or endodontist drills a hole in the top of your tooth and cleans the dead material out of the pulp chamber and root(s). The canal(s) in your tooth root(s) are then filled with a rubber-like material to seal against bacteria and future infection.
Depending on the level of damage, the dentist sometimes places a metal or plastic post inside your tooth to keep a filling in place. In many cases a crown may be placed to further protect and restore your tooth.
If your dead tooth can’t be saved, or if for other reasons you and your dentist choose not to do a root canal, your dentist will likely recommend extracting your dead tooth. This empty space can then be replaced with an implant, partial denture, or bridge.
Contact your dentist right away if you sustain an injury to your teeth, or if you suspect your tooth is decayed. Your dentist will assess your teeth and all the structure and tissues in your mouth, and recommend the best course of action to keep your smile healthy and strong.
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