How Can I Tell If My Tooth Is Dead?

There’s a tooth that’s been bugging you for a bit but now it’s discolored and just doesn’t look right. Could it be a dead tooth?

A dead tooth is a tooth that no longer receives fresh blood flow. Often called non-vital teeth, dead teeth have a series of characteristics that can help you identify the signs and take action. Read below to find out more.

Common Signs of a Dead Tooth

When trying to identify a dead tooth, there’s a few characteristics to look for. For instance, you’ll often experience some discoloration. Depending on your diet, staining is inevitable, especially if your diet involves items like berries, coffee, and wine.

Unhealthy habits like smoking also cause discoloration. The difference with dead tooth discoloration and regular staining is that the color of the individual tooth is completely different than the remaining teeth. When there are stains from smoking and diet, your teeth uniformly stain.

A dead tooth doesn’t immediately appear different than the others. A tooth can be dead for months before it appears any different. When the tooth does change colors, it’ll appear dull and gray or black.

The reason for the change in color is due to dying blood vessels. It’s similar to when your skin bruises. When left untreated, discoloration begins.

When it comes to pain, some people do experience pain as their tooth dies. Others feel little to no pain. The pain associated with a dying tooth is based on nerve damage.

Pain can also be an indication of an infection as the tooth dies. When you have an infection, you’ll likely experience bad breath, swollen gums, and a lingering bad taste in your mouth. When you experience one or multiple of these symptoms, it’s important to get to the dentist as quickly as possible.

What Causes Teeth to Die?

1. Trauma

Teeth commonly die due to trauma. If you get hit in your mouth with a hard object or get into a fight, it’s likely to begin dying. When it comes to the time it takes for a tooth to die, it can take as little as a few days or as long as several months or years depending on the trauma’s impact.

2. Poor Oral Hygiene

In addition to trauma, poor hygiene is a leading cause of a dying tooth. Oral neglect leads to cavities, which increases the likelihood of a tooth dying. Beginning on the enamel, cavities eat away at the tooth until it reaches the pulp.

Once the pulp develops an infection, it’s blood flow ceases, causing the tooth to die. You’ll typically feel the most pain when your tooth decay reaches the pulp.

3. Multiple Oral Procedures

If you’ve had numerous oral procedures or grind your teeth often, you’re likely to wear down your enamel and irritate your pulp. Think about when you cut your hand. The more dirt or bacteria that enters your cut, the longer the wound takes to heal.

Unlike a wound on your hand, your tooth pulp cannot be restored on it’s own. Lack of attention increases the likelihood of tooth decay not only impacting and killing one tooth, but the teeth around it are at a higher risk of infection.

How Do Dentists Handle Dead Teeth?

As soon as you see symptoms, go to the dentist. When you attempt to fix a dying tooth early, it’s easier to save. Even if the tooth cannot be saved, your dentist can get rid of the infection before it spreads.

To start, you’ll receive an x-ray. X-rays allow them to assess the level of damage and find the appropriate solution. Once they realize the severity of the dying tooth, you usually have two options.

Root Canal

Your first option is a root canal. If your tooth isn’t completely dead, your dentist can remove the infected pulp, clean the tooth, and seal it. If your tooth isn’t broken, it’s still functional post-infection. If your tooth is weaker, your dentist may add a crown to restore its function.


If your damage is too severe, your second option is extraction. Extraction involves removing the tooth from the root to avoid the spread of an infection. Once you receive an extraction, you can eventually get a dental bridge or implant to replace the missing tooth.

Keep in mind, the longer you put off having a dental exam, the likelihood of you needing tooth extraction grows. Even if you experience subtle symptoms like mild pain or sensitivity, make an appointment to see your dentist immediately. Doing so betters your chances of saving your damaged tooth.

How to Prevent a Dead Tooth

Brush and floss daily.

The best way to avoid either dental procedure is preventative oral care. By staying on top of your oral hygiene, you’re less likely to have cavities or weaker enamel.

An important step involves brushing and flossing every day. Ideally, you should brush and floss after big meals, especially after consuming acidic foods. If that’s not possible, you can brush and floss at least twice daily.

Eliminate acidic foods whenever possible.

In addition to proper hygiene, pay attention to your diet. Certain foods cause enamel erosion. The quicker your enamel erodes, the easier it becomes for your infected pulp to kill your tooth.

Common acidic foods and beverages to avoid include:
-Sugary foods and drinks
-Coffee and caffeinated drinks
-Large amounts of citrus fruits
-Fruit juices

It’s possible to enjoy these items in moderation. When you can, brush or at least rinse your mouth after consuming the previously mentioned items. Rinsing your mouth neutralizes the acid and minimizes enamel erosion.

Act fast after an injury.

Obviously, you can’t predict when you’ll experience oral trauma or an injury. But as the old saying goes, it’s not about what happens to you but how you respond to it. As soon as you have an injury, book an appointment to avoid further damage.

If you play sports or work somewhere where you’re bound to experience oral trauma, consider purchasing a mouthguard to protect your teeth during physical activity. Even if you do experience some pain or injury, it’ll do far less damage.

Having a dead tooth comes with a series of problems. In addition to the pain, sensitivity, irritation, and gum swelling, dead teeth also come with infection. If left untreated, that infection can spread to other teeth.

While you can’t help traumatic oral events, everyday habits like poor oral hygiene and overindulgence in acidic foods are major causes of tooth decay. When left unchecked, it erodes the enamel until it reaches the pulp. Once it reaches the pulp, it gradually cuts the blood flow from the rest of the tooth.

Don’t be discouraged if you have a dying tooth. If you catch it early enough, your tooth can be saved. If you need a root canal, it’s possible the dying tooth’s infection can be cleared, allowing it to remain functional.

Teeth are a vital part of everyday life. With a strong oral care routine, routine checkups, and taking action to solve oral issues, you won’t have to worry about experiencing a dead tooth.

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