How You Can Tell You Have a Dead Tooth and What You Can Do About It

Published on November 8, 2012 by

The other day a friend told me that her dentist had declared her tooth dead and her immediate response was ‘what do you mean dead? How can a tooth die?’ Then she thought, ‘What can I do about it?’

A dead, or non-vital, tooth is simply a tooth that no longer has access to blood flow. Our teeth have three layers: namely the enamel, the dentin and the pulp. The blood vessels and nerve fibers are located in the pulp and this means that when the pulp is dead, then the tooth is dead as well. Often, a non-vital tooth is removed, but there is another option. We’ll get to that, but first, let’s go over what causes a dead tooth and how you can tell if you have one.

Causes of a Non-Vital Tooth

A cavity or a bacterial infection, when left untreated for long, tends to run deeper into the tooth and eventually reaches the dentin. When this happens, sensitivity is usually the first sign and, if ignored, this sensitivity eventually reaches the pulp and results in severe tooth pain. What happens is that when the infection reaches that deep, the pulp tries to fight it off by using the white blood cells. Pus develops when some of the white blood cells die during the battle against the infection. If the infection is not treated at this stage, all the white blood cells will die and the blood flow will stop completely; that’s how a dead tooth comes to be. A brutal injury to the tooth may also cut the supply of blood instantly. Other factors that could contribute to this problem are tooth fillings and crowns administered in the wrong way.

It can be very difficult to identify a dead tooth just by looking at it and that is another reason why it’s important to visit a dentist regularly. However, a non-vital tooth may exhibit some symptoms like significant blackening or yellowing. This discoloration is usually the dead pulp becoming visible. Another sign of a non-vital tooth is unexplained swelling that is normally a result of a periodontal abscess, caused by gum disease or injury, which can rupture and produce a sinus tract, a channel between the infection and the mouth. A dead tooth will eventually become loose and start shaking. It can also produce a terrible smell and even more severe pain.

How to Treat a Dead Tooth

Generally, there are only two treatment options available for a non-vital tooth. The first option is extraction or removal. This is usually done when the tooth is damaged beyond repair or when finances are an issue because extraction is typically the least expensive solution. The extracted tooth can always be replaced later by a titanium fixed denture. Root canal treatment is the second option and it is performed when one chooses to keep the non-vital or dead tooth, especially when one or more teeth have been lost before. A root canal cleans out the infection and gets rid of the decayed part of the pulp. Most people fear this treatment and would rather have their tooth extracted or ignore the tooth all together, which will no doubt lead to further complications. With today’s modern technology, a root canal treatment can be a painless and comfortable experience and, if done early, can save a dead tooth by preventing further infection. The process usually begins with anesthesia to prevent any pain, then a dental drill is used to make an opening for the cleaning instrument to penetrate the bone. The infection is cleaned out and the opening is then closed with a filling. The tooth can then be bleached to turn it whiter or a veneer or a crown can be fixed over the tooth to make it more appear more natural.

Preventing Dead or Non-Vital Teeth

Brushing and flossing regularly and properly can prevent the buildup of food and bacteria that gets trapped between teeth and gums, which can cause infection and lead to dead teeth. Regular visits to the dentist can also play a major role, since your dentist will be able to identify early signs of a non-vital tooth. There are other early signs that you can recognize on your own that include sensitivity to heat or cold, pain when chewing or biting down, slight discolorations, bad breath, gum boils and facial swelling. Saving a dead tooth depends on early detection and early treatment, so don’t ignore the signs – get it checked out before it’s too late.


Filed under: General Health, Periodontist
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31 comments on “How You Can Tell You Have a Dead Tooth and What You Can Do About It”

  1. Thanks for the helpful information. A friend of mine just got hit by a softball and was panicking about getting a “dead tooth”.

  2. thomas lambe says:

    i tink ive a dead tooth

  3. Cj Graham says:

    does a dead tooth hurt?

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      It could if enough pressure build up in the tooth & the infection can’t get out. Usually it ends up with an abases if not treated.

  4. Hine says:

    I have a dead tooth and I don’t know how to care for it? 14yrs young, The dentist said I got it from an abscess but did nothing about it?

  5. Hine says:

    And it is one of my two front teeth (adult) -.-

  6. Babz says:

    I have a dead tooth, I only found out 2 weeks ago and an going to get a root canal on it. It’s one of my front teeth.

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      We are glad to know that you are attending the needs of your dead tooth, having taken care of the roots of your dead tooth, you should be able to keep it for a long time to come!

  7. Will says:

    I was assaulted around 8 months ago and had two of my front teeth knocked out of place in which the dentist straightened out and put a splint on. After a month it was removed and two teeth were declared as dead after various tests to see if it responded to cold temperatures. What would you recommend that I do as it’s been 7 months since the teeth had died?

  8. Kahy says:

    My husband has non- diabetic peripheral neuropathy in his sensory nerves in his feet, but has also needed numerous root canals for early abscesses. Is it possible that what ever is causing the neuropathy in his feet is also causing nerves to die in his teeth?

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      I am not sure about the exact correlation but it is totally possible that the whole body would be affected by the condition including teeth.

  9. Jadee says:

    So about 3 months ago at work I was hit in the face with an iron bar (long story, eh) anyway, one of my front teeth was injured, it snapped about 1mm at the front but snapped in an L and snapped around 3mm up at the back. Since, I’ve had sensitivity, lately it has become insane and I can’t even drink room temperature liquids. Even eating is too painful, I have to cut everything tiny and not pull anything apart.

  10. Kaliah says:

    I have a dead tooth that abscessed a year ago, my face swelled up to the size of a baseball and I panicked and went to the emergency room. They gave me temporary care by draining the abscess and prescribing me antibacterials, but because I was uninsured I’m now nearly $4,000 in debt. I don’t have dental insurance, and now I have more cavities, my abscessed tooth is now dead, and one of my fillings recently came loose and fell out. I’m honeslty scared, but I can’t afford an insurance plan, the ACA won’t cover me because I’m over 21 and I don’t know where to go to get my teeth fixed. I want to fillin my cavities to prevent more pain and another abscess, as well as have my dead tooth pulled, but I don’t know where to go for help. I’m really scared that I’m going to die from complications, all because I can’t afford it…

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      If your finances do not allow you to see a regular dentist, you can still get dental care at a local dental school where “Dentists to Be” would perform the necessary procedures under supervision of a professor, normally the cost is very minimal but you’d have to be qualified. I’d be more than happy to assist you in finding a solution to your minor financial situation.

  11. Brenda Boyce says:

    I have been suffering from a bad (sometimes foul) taste in my mouth along with stickiness for three years or more. I have seen six oral ‘specialists’ and the last one told me that I should get a white filling in a tooth looked at because it was ‘sticky’. This tooth, incidentally, had been a grey colour prior to the filling. My dentist chose to refill it and see what happens. However, the stickiness behind it (which is close to the gum) returned within a few days. Is it possible that this tooth could have died and is sending out this stickiness and bad taste?

    Any help or advice you can offer will be very much appreciated! Thank you!

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      It is really difficult to diagnose this type of problem without complete examination of the tooth & the tissue around it. It is possible for an infected tooth to have a bad odor & bad taste in the mouth. They need to do vitality test on this tooth to determine the condition of the nerve. I would see an endodontist for complete evaluation of this tooth, you can rely on the expertise of our Endodontist who has 30 years experience in helping patients recover and maintain a good oral hygiene.

  12. Ashley says:

    My daughter fell an hit hurt mouth playing and at first I thought she just busted her lip but after cleaning it up an looking I noticed she cut her gums above her two front teeth which are permanent teeth she said her teeth don’t hurt but her gums seem to have a little bruising is there anything I should look out for to make sure her teeth wasn’t effected by the fall?

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      There is nothing to be done at this point. Keep checking for mobility & any discoloration within the tooth structure. Soft tissue should get better on its own. If there are any pain, mobility or discoloration take her to see a dentist, if you are close by to us, we will be happy to arrange this visit.

  13. minky says:

    One of my back teeth the very last one been dead for years due to a bad rooth canal as a teen. It cracked two years ago and now the remainder is extremely soft and lose like I can pull it out if I had the guts to. I don’t have dental insurance. What should I do?

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      This tooth needs to be extracted even if you are not replacing it. It has to be taken out by a dentist. You can not do it any other way. It probably will come out in pieces.

  14. Gosia says:

    I was hit in my front tooth by my dog and it’s extremely sensitive …does that mean I have a dead tooth ?

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      It is really difficult to diagnose this type of problem without complete examination of the tooth & the tissue around it. You need to see a dentist!

  15. cristobal says:

    I have a broken front upper tooth, broken across and near/below the gumline. There has been a foul odor for the longest time since I started seeing it turn a darker color. It was being pushed on and ground away by my canine.
    About the smell: ever since I’ve started covering the hole daily with orthodontic wax the smell has seemed to be diminished or near non-existent (I could smell it easily before when I lightly blew through the gap). It used to be pungent and either it’s gone away due to the bacteria which had caused the smell dying off due to lack of oxygen/nutrients or the mint flavor is just overpowering my senses (even though it is rather mild). Is the death of odor-causing bacteria a strong possibility given what I’ve told you? As a temporary measure is what I’m doing going to cause any harm or produce any benefits until I am able to get this taken care of (in May, hopefully)?

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      I wonder what is preventing you from seeing a dentist and take care of this problem?
      From what you are explaining, you definitely need some treatments and the sooner you get it you might be able to save your tooth.
      The existing of infection is a sign of harmful bacteria living in your mouth and there is no benefit in that, Please see your dentist as soon as you can.

  16. Sue says:

    I am an MS sufferer and trigeminal neuralgia is a symtom jthat I struggle with. Yesterday my dentist told me that I have a dead tooth which needs removing. I am worried that this might leave nerves uncovered and affect my pain. What do you think?

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      In some cases a dead tooth can be saved however, it would be nearly impossible to assess any treatment without having seen the x-rays. If you do not have any systematic problems of general healing, the extraction of the dead tooth should not be causing you any complications.

  17. Tom says:

    i was eating and a 1/4 of my back molar cracked and now i have this giant ditch around the gums. it didnt hurt and it doesnt. ikr, and now a sharp piece is irritating my tounge

    • Dr. Bezik says:

      You need to take care of this tooth before it gets to the point of extraction, you need to see a dentist.

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