Teeth are made up of a combination of hard and soft tissue. You may not think of teeth as living, but healthy teeth are alive. When the nerves in the pulp of the tooth, which is the inner layer, become damaged, such as by injury or decay, they can stop providing blood to the tooth. That can cause an infection and cause the nerve to die. This is also sometimes known as a non-vital tooth.

Read on to learn how to identify a dead tooth and what you should do if you see signs that your tooth is injured.

A dead tooth is a tooth that’s no longer receiving a fresh supply of blood. For many people, discoloration may be one of the first signs of a dying tooth. You may also experience pain in the tooth or gums.

Healthy teeth are usually a shade of white, though the color can vary depending on your diet and oral hygiene. For example, if you regularly consume foods that are staining, like coffee, blueberries, or red wine, or smoke, your smile may appear off-white or light yellow. This discoloration will likely be uniform, however.

If you have a tooth that’s discolored because it’s dying, it will be a different color than the rest of your teeth. A dying tooth may appear yellow, light brown, gray, or even black. It may look almost as if the tooth is bruised. The discoloration will increase over time as the tooth continues to decay and the nerve dies.

Pain is another possible symptom. Some people don’t feel any pain. Others feel mild pain, and still other people will feel intense pain. The pain is often caused by the dying nerve. It can also be caused by infection. Other signs of infection may include:

  • bad breath
  • bad taste in your mouth
  • swelling around your gum line

If you experience any symptoms of a dying tooth, it’s important to see your dentist right away.

Trauma or injury to your tooth is one possible cause for a tooth to die. For example, getting hit in the mouth with a soccer ball or tripping and hitting your mouth against something can cause your tooth to die. A tooth may die quickly, in a matter of days, or slowly, over several months or years.

A tooth can also die as the result of poor dental hygiene. That can lead to cavities, which when left untreated can slowly destroy your tooth. Cavities begin on the enamel, which is the outer protective layer of your tooth. Left untreated, they can slowly eat away at the enamel and eventually reach the pulp. That causes the pulp to become infected, which cuts off blood to the pulp and, eventually, causes it to die. You’ll likely experience intense pain once the decay has reached the pulp.

A dying tooth may be identified during a routine dental appointment that includes X-rays. It may also be identified if you see your dentist because of pain or concerns over discoloration.

You should always see your dentist following any tooth injury, or if you have any signs of a dying tooth. That way your dentist can begin treatment as soon as possible.

It’s important to treat a dying or dead tooth as soon as possible. That’s because left untreated, the bacteria from the dead tooth can spread and lead to the loss of additional teeth. It could also affect your jawbone and gums.

Your dentist may treat a dead or dying tooth with a procedure known as a root canal. Alternatively, they may remove the entire tooth.

Root canal

With a root canal, you may be able to keep your tooth intact. During the procedure, the dentist makes an opening into the tooth and then uses small instruments to remove the pulp and clean out the infection. Once all of the infection has been removed, your dentist will fill and seal the roots and place a permanent filling in the small opening.

In many cases, you may need to have a crown following a root canal. This may be a good option if the enamel was damaged or if the tooth had a large filling. With time, a tooth that had a root canal can become brittle. That’s why crowns are usually recommended for posterior teeth (due to grinding and chewing). A crown is a covering that’s specifically molded to your tooth. Your dentist will file away part of your existing tooth and then permanently fit the crown over the tooth. A crown can be made to match the color of your surrounding teeth so that it’s not noticeable.

If your doctor determines that you don’t need a crown, you may be able to use tooth bleaching to treat any discoloration to the affected tooth. This is usually seen on anterior teeth only. Alternatively, your dentist may recommend covering the tooth with a porcelain veneer. Talk to your doctor about the different aesthetic treatments available.

Removal or extraction

If your tooth is severely damaged and unable to be restored, your dentist may recommend completely removing the dead tooth. During the procedure, the dentist will completely remove the tooth. Following the extraction, you can replace the tooth with an implant, denture, or bridge. Talk to your dentist about your options. Some questions you should ask are:

  • Will it need to be replaced over time?
  • How much will it cost? Will my dental insurance cover it?
  • What’s recovery like?
  • Will I need to do anything different to take care of the replacement tooth?

Pain management

If your tooth is causing lot of pain, there are somethings you can do at home while you wait for treatment:

  • Avoid hot beverages. They can increase inflammation, which can make your pain worse.
  • Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).
  • Avoid eating hard things. The force of biting down on them may aggravate the damaged nerves.

It’s important to see your dentist right away. Home treatment should not be used in place of professional medical treatment. Instead, you should use these methods while you wait for your appointment.

Preventing a dead tooth isn’t always possible, but there are some things you can do to reduce your risk.

  • Practice good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth twice a day, and floss at least once a day.
  • See your dentist every six months. Preventative dental care can help stop problems before they start. Your dentist can also identify early signs of tooth decay and treat them before the decay reaches your pulp.
  • Wear a mouth guard. If you’re participating in contact sports, like hockey or boxing, always wear a mouth guard to protect your teeth from trauma.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Avoid eating a lot of sugary foods, which can increase your risk for tooth decay.
  • Drink water, especially after eating. Water can help wash away bacteria from your teeth between brushings.

It’s important to see your dentist right away if you suspect you have a dead or dying tooth. Early treatment can help prevent complications. When left untreated, the infection from a dead tooth can affect the surrounding teeth and structures.