Can the ER do anything for tooth pain?

Tooth pain can be excruciating and make it difficult to function normally. When the pain becomes severe, some people consider going to the emergency room (ER) for help. But can the ER really do anything for tooth pain?

Quick Answers

Here are quick answers to common questions about whether the ER can help with tooth pain:

  • The ER focuses on acute, life-threatening medical issues and generally does not provide dental care.
  • However, the ER may temporarily manage tooth pain symptoms with pain medication or antibiotics.
  • Definitive treatment for a toothache usually requires seeing a dentist for procedures like fillings, root canals, or tooth extractions.
  • Visiting an ER for tooth pain can be very expensive compared to seeing a dentist.
  • Still, the ER may be an option if you cannot reach a dentist and the tooth pain is severe or unrelenting.

What Does the ER Treat?

Emergency rooms are designed to focus on acute medical issues that require rapid intervention. This includes conditions like:

  • Heart attacks
  • Strokes
  • Major injuries or trauma
  • Significant infections
  • Asthma attacks
  • Kidney stones
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Complications of pregnancy
  • Psychiatric emergencies

The ER staff is specially trained to carry out medical evaluations quickly. They can order tests like X-rays, CT scans, and bloodwork to find the cause of severe or life-threatening symptoms. The focus is on stabilizing the patient medically.

In contrast, the ER is not designed to provide ongoing management or definitive treatment for chronic medical conditions. While the ER may be able to offer temporary relief for tooth pain, they do not offer dental procedures and surgery to fix the underlying problem.

What the ER Can Do for Toothaches

While the ER does not provide dental care, they can offer some supportive treatment options for severe tooth pain. These may include:

  • Pain medication – The ER staff can administer stronger prescription pain medications compared to what is available over-the-counter. These may include opioids or IV pain medications for short-term relief.
  • Antibiotics – If the tooth pain is thought to be related to an infection, the ER may prescribe antibiotics to help control infection before you can see a dentist.
  • Dental block – In some cases, they may attempt to numb the area around the problematic tooth with a dental anesthetic block.
  • Referrals to a dentist – They will advise you to follow up urgently with a dentist for proper diagnosis and dental treatment.

However, keep in mind these ER measures are temporary fixes aimed at symptom relief. You will still need to see a dentist or dental specialist soon for definite treatment, such as fillings, crowns, root canals, or tooth extractions to resolve the cause of pain.

Limitations of the ER for Tooth Pain

There are several important limitations to seeking care at the ER for toothaches:

  • The ER generally cannot provide definitive dental treatment procedures.
  • You will face very high medical bills from an ER visit compared to seeing a dentist.
  • ERs are already overcrowded treating life-threatening medical emergencies.
  • You may need to wait a long time for non-urgent issues like dental pain.
  • The ER cannot provide long-term prescriptions for pain medications that may be addictive.

Dentists have the proper facilities, equipment, and training to diagnose tooth problems and provide appropriate procedures. Seeking their expertise for dental pain is more affordable and appropriate in most cases.

When the ER May Be Needed for Toothaches

There are some situations where visiting the ER for tooth pain becomes necessary:

  • Uncontrollable pain – The toothache is so severe that over-the-counter painkillers provide little relief.
  • Difficulty breathing – Dental abscesses can sometimes impair breathing, which becomes an emergency.
  • Facial swelling – A swollen face alongside tooth pain can indicate a dangerous infection requiring urgent care.
  • Trauma – Facial trauma from an accident that causes severe tooth pain or damage needs ER evaluation.
  • No access to a dentist – You cannot reach a dentist soon enough and need immediate, temporary relief.

In these situations, the ER can provide pain management and antibiotics to stabilize the condition before you can get appropriate dental treatment.

What to Expect at the ER for Toothaches

If you do end up going to the ER for tooth pain, here is what you can generally expect:

  • The triage nurse will get a brief history of your dental symptoms and assess your pain severity.
  • You will likely have to wait awhile, as patients with life-threatening issues take priority.
  • When seen, the ER doctor will examine your mouth and facial area.
  • They may order dental X-rays to look for problems like impacted teeth or dental abscesses.
  • Treatment is aimed at temporarily relieving pain, not fixing the dental issue.
  • You may receive pain medication by injection or IV, as well as antibiotic prescriptions.
  • The doctor will advise you to follow up with a dentist promptly for definitive care.

Be prepared to communicate your dental symptoms and history clearly to the ER staff during your visit.

Costs of Going to the ER

An important consideration for tooth pain is the high cost of visiting the ER compared to a dentist office. People with dental insurance usually have minimal or no coverage for ER treatment. The bills for medications, facility fees, and diagnostic tests can easily run into thousands of dollars.

In contrast, seeing a dentist for procedures like fillings, root canals, or tooth extractions will be significantly cheaper for most insured patients. Visiting an urgent dental care clinic can also be much more affordable than going to the hospital.

If the tooth pain is not severe, it makes financial sense to call your dentist or an emergency dental hotline first before resorting to the high costs of the ER.

Average ER Costs for Tooth Pain

Service Typical Cost
ER facility fee $150 – $2000+
Physician fee $100 – $750
Dental exam/X-rays $100 – $350
Medications $50 – $500+
Total bill $400 – $4000+

Many hospitals provide financial assistance or payment plans if you cannot afford the total ER costs. But avoiding the ER for non-urgent dental issues makes the most financial sense.

Alternatives to Visiting the ER

Before heading to the high-cost ER, consider these more affordable alternatives for getting urgent relief from toothaches:

See a Dentist

Contact your dentist, explain your symptoms, and try to get an urgent or emergency dental appointment. Most dental offices reserve time slots each day for acute dental issues. The dentist can definitively diagnose and treat the problem.

Urgent Dental Care Clinics

Many areas now have urgent dental care clinics that can treat severe toothaches on short notice for a fraction of ER costs. Search for ones open late nights or weekends near you.

Dental Schools

Dental schools or universities with dental programs often have clinics that see dental emergencies for lower fees. The work is supervised by experienced dentists.

Over-the-Counter Medications

For mild to moderate toothaches, using OTC painkillers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or topical dental numbing gels can provide temporary relief until you can see a dentist.

Dental Hotlines

Many third-party hotlines can help you get a same-day dental appointment or give advice for relieving tooth pain until your dental visit.

Preventing Emergency Toothaches

You can help avoid tooth pain that feels severe enough to warrant an ER visit by:

  • Seeing your dentist regularly for checkups and cleanings every 6-12 months.
  • Having cavities filled promptly before they worsen.
  • Practicing good daily dental hygiene with brushing and flossing.
  • Wearing a custom night guard if you grind your teeth.
  • Eating a healthy diet low in sugars.
  • Drinking water instead of sugary or acidic drinks that damage enamel.
  • Stopping smoking, which increases dental problems.

Addressing minor dental issues early is much more affordable and effective than waiting until you have severe tooth pain needing ER management. Follow your dentist’s guidance for preventive dental care.


Severe toothaches are agonizing, but heading to the ER should not be your first choice. The high costs, long waits, and limitations of ER care make it an inefficient approach for dental pain compared to prompt dental treatment.

The ER focuses on ruling out life-threatening medical issues and providing only temporary relief for dental symptoms. You will still need appropriate procedures from a dentist or dental specialist to resolve the underlying cause.

Visit the ER for dental issues only if you have uncontrolled, severe pain and swelling, difficulty breathing, or trauma and cannot reach a dentist soon enough. Otherwise, contact your dentist urgently or use alternatives like urgent dental care clinics for more affordable toothache relief.

Leave a Comment