What’s a Dead Tooth? Here’s How to Tell — And How to Fix It

Categories: Oral Health Tips

It may not seem like it, but teeth are living, changing parts of your body. Your teeth are made up of living tissue that’s impacted by how you take care of your teeth, what you eat and drink, and the genes handed down from your parents.

Just like any other part of your body, your teeth can get sick. If a tooth is damaged badly enough, it can become what’s known as a dead tooth (sometimes called a black tooth). This happens when the living tissue in your tooth dies and starts to decay.

A dead tooth might be painful, discolored, or emit a foul smell. If left untreated, it could impact your health and lead to infection in other parts of your body. Plus, a dead tooth can impact your confidence and make you less enthusiastic about your smile.

A dead tooth is a serious dental issue, but there are affordable ways to treat and prevent the infection from spreading. Here’s how to tell if you have a dead tooth, how to prevent it, and your treatment options to maintain a beautiful, healthy smile.

What is a Dead Tooth?

Your teeth are made up of four layers of dental tissue:

  • Enamel
  • Dentin
  • Cementum
  • Pulp

The innermost layer — the pulp — is a soft tissue where the nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissues of your teeth live. It’s the most sensitive part of your tooth, which is why it’s protected underneath hard enamel.

The inner pulp provides blood supply to the rest of your tooth. Like any other part of your body, your teeth need a steady blood supply to stay healthy. When that supply is cut off, the tooth starts to get infected and die.

What Causes a Dead Tooth

There are two main causes of a dead tooth: severe tooth decay or trauma.

1. Severe Tooth Decay

When sugars from food and drinks stay in your mouth without getting removed by brushing, flossing, saliva, or water, bacteria start to eat at the sugars on your teeth. If left long enough, they can eventually eat away at the enamel of your teeth, causing a cavity.

When a cavity is treated properly, you have another chance to keep your teeth healthy with proper dental habits. But if a cavity is left untreated, the innermost layer of the tooth — the pulp — can get infected. If that tissue gets sick enough, it stops providing blood flow and causes a dead tooth.

3. Physical Trauma

Physical trauma is the other common cause of a dead tooth. If you get into an accident — such as a car accident or sports injury — there’s a chance the blood vessels inside your tooth can rupture, slowing down the blood supply to the tooth. This can cause the tooth to “die.”

Signs of a Dead Tooth

Symptoms of a dead tooth:

  • Pain
  • Discoloration
  • Bad breath
  • Foul odor
  • Fever
  • Swollen gums or cheek
  • Swollen lymph nodes

A dead tooth can be painful. Many people report pain all the way into their gums surrounding the tooth. You might notice sensitivity to cold or hot foods or feel pain when eating something particularly sweet.

But be warned: not everyone who had a dead tooth experiences pain. If your tooth isn’t painful, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t dead.

Another common sign of a dead tooth is discoloration. A dead tooth often looks darker than the surrounding teeth. It may look more yellow, gray, or black. This change in color is a result of the red blood cells dying.

A dead tooth might also cause bad breath and/or a bad taste in your mouth. If the infection is left untreated, it could even cause swelling in your gums, cheek, lymph nodes, or fever.

If you come in to see us (or your local dentist) regularly, we can spot the signs of a developing dead tooth and treat it to prevent the tooth from dying. If you’re already experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to make an appointment with your dentist as soon as possible to treat the infection.

Can a Dead Tooth Be Saved?

Having a dead tooth doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing you can do. If it’s caught early enough, it’s possible to save a dead tooth with a root canal.

A root canal procedure involves removing infected tissue from your tooth to prevent the illness from spreading to other areas of the body. At Access Health Dental, we always try to save a tooth rather than remove it. In the case of a dead tooth, a root canal can help us treat the problem rather than pulling the tooth out.

Once we clear out the infected tissue, we fill and seal your tooth to prevent further infection. We may also put a crown on top of the tooth to protect it further and give your tooth a normal appearance and function.

You might experience some discomfort and sensitivity for a few days while the wound heals, but after that, you shouldn’t notice a change. In fact, if you were experiencing discomfort due to a dead tooth, the root canal should help you feel better.

Dead Tooth Extraction

If the tooth is too damaged for a root canal, we may need to remove it completely to save you pain and further issues down the line. If this is the case, your dentist will numb you, remove the tooth, and possibly replace it with an implant, denture, or bridge.

How to Prevent a Dead Tooth

Like with anything related to your health, it’s always better to prevent a problem rather than treat it.

You can keep your teeth healthy and prevent getting a dead tooth by keeping a close eye on your dental hygiene. Come in to see us for a cleaning at least twice a year, and when you have a filling, get it taken care of as soon as possible in the way your dentist recommends. In between visits, brush your teeth with an electric toothbrush and floss.

Watch your diet, too. Foods that are good for your teeth are also good for your health. Eat a diet full of vegetables, lean protein, fruit, and whole grains, and limit sugars. Sticky candy like toffee, caramel, and sour gummy candy is particularly risky for your teeth. Limit how much you eat of those treats and be sure to brush and floss well afterward.

Treat Your Dead Tooth Today

If you don’t treat your dead tooth, the infection can spread until the tooth falls out on its own. There’s no knowing how long this might take, and it can cause further infection in your mouth. That’s why it’s important to make an appointment to come see us if you’re experiencing any of the signs or symptoms of a dead tooth.

If you think you may have a dead tooth, it’s essential to get it taken care of right away. Come in to see us to get an exam and a treatment plan.

Make an appointment with Access Health Dental to treat your dead tooth >