What exactly is a dead tooth, and how does it happen? A tooth is considered non-vital when the nerve and tissues inside the tooth die, or when they have been removed as part of a procedure like a root canal. A dead tooth may sometimes be kept in the mouth but it will require treatment by your dentist.

What causes a tooth to die?

The primary cause of death is untreated tooth decay. This occurs when the decay progresses to an advanced stage and reaches the nerve in the tooth, causing your body to produce an inflammatory response to try to get rid of bacteria. Eventually the pressure inside the tooth cuts off the blood supply and the nerve dies.

Trauma is another common cause of tooth death. This might include sports injuries, a child falling on their front teeth, a physical blow to the mouth, or severe grinding. When an injury occurs that blocks or severs the blood supply to the nerve, it will become choked and die just as with tooth decay. This is why mouth guards are so important for contact sports.

What are the symptoms of tooth death?

The following are common symptoms of a dead tooth. If left untreated, the tooth will eventually become loose and fall out due to destruction of the surrounding bone and tissues.

  • Darkening. The tooth may change color and become grey, yellow, or black due to “bruising” from the dying blood cells. This darkening happens to nearly all dead teeth over time. It will not go away by itself and will need treatment.
  • Pain. There may be extreme pain as the nerve dies, although in some cases pain may be mild or completely absent. If an abscess develops, you may experience severe pain along with swelling, a foul odor, a bad taste, a pimple on the gums, or pus.

How is a dead tooth treated?

There are two options for treatment: extraction (removal) or a root canal. The treatment option performed will depend on how extensive the damage is. Extremely decayed teeth will often require an extraction, but in less severe cases the tooth can be saved with a root canal.

If a root canal is performed, the dentist will clean out and seal the tooth to prevent an accumulation of bacteria. Then cosmetic restoration may be done to remove discoloration (teeth whitening) or cover the damaged tooth (veneers). In many cases, the dentist will need to place a crown on the tooth to keep it intact.

How can I avoid tooth death?

The best way to avoid tooth death is to protect your mouth during sports, brush and floss daily, and see your dentist regularly to prevent decay. But even if you do all of these things, you may be engaging in other habits that might damage your teeth. Some habits may not cause immediate damage, but repeated exposure could accumulate over time and lead to severe problems.

To help protect your teeth, make sure to stop doing the following:

  • Chewing ice
  • Using your teeth as tools (i.e. as scissors, a knife, pliers, etc.)
  • Biting pens or other hard objects
  • Using something other than dental floss (i.e. a paperclip, piece of paper, fingernail, etc.) to clean between the teeth
  • Biting your nails
  • Grinding or clenching teeth
  • Drinking lots of sodas or sports drinks

Written by: Dr. Yahya Mansour