It’s not most people’s idea of a good time, but sometimes it has to happen – sometimes a tooth needs to be pulled. This is what we in the dental profession call an “extraction” – a tooth is removed from a patient in order to treat decay, reduce crowding in the mouth, or to prevent infection and other problems (for example: Wisdom teeth).
Whenever a tooth is removed, the patient need to take certain precautions and follow guidelines to help care for their mouth as it heals. The site of the tooth extraction is going to be sore. There will be some bleeding. In the hours after the tooth is pulled, you will need to use ice, gauze and follow instructions closely to help ensure that your mouth heals properly.
But sometimes, in spite of all of our best efforts, something goes wrong, and the patient gets a “dry socket.”
What is “dry socket?”
Dry socket occurs when the blood clot in the site of the tooth extraction gets dislodged or washed away – exposing the nerves and jawbone below. This is not fun, to say the least; in fact, it hurts – a lot. Dry socket is not a great experience, but it can be prevented – and if you do get a dry socket, it can be treated.
Dry socket occurs in only about 3 to 5 percent of all tooth extractions – so most people will never experience dry socket. It’s much more common after removing Wisdom teeth – especially impacted Wisdom teeth that are embedded in the jawbone and are more complicated to remove.
How does dry socket happen?
When a tooth is removed, the gum line where the tooth used to be needs to heal. There is some bleeding whenever a tooth is pulled, but in time, the “socket” where the tooth used to be will fill in with a blood clot – the beginning of the new tissue that will form to fill in the gap.
The trouble is, sometimes this blood clot gets washed away or dislodged. Or sometimes the blood clot never forms properly in the first place. There might be a bacterial infection in the socket, or roots and bone fragments that prevent the socket from healing properly. If a tooth was impacted (which tends to be more likely for Wisdom teeth in particular), it is often more difficult for the socket to heal.
How do I know if I have dry socket?
Usually whenever a tooth is pulled, the person’s mouth will quickly heal and start to feel better with each passing day. When a person has a dry socket, instead of gradually feeling better, there is a persistent and growing pain that tends to get worse. Here are some other signs of dry socket:
- If you are feeling severe pain within a few days of getting a tooth removed…
- If you look into your mouth and notice that the blood clot where the tooth used to be is missing (totally or partially), resulting in an empty-looking (“dry”) socket…
- If you can see through to the jaw bone at the tooth socket…
- If you feel pain that travels to your ear or eye on the same side of your face where your tooth was removed…
- If you notice that you have bad breath or an unpleasant odor coming from your mouth…
- If you have an extremely unpleasant taste in your mouth…
- If the lymph nodes around your jaw or neck are swollen…
…then you might have dry socket. Call your dentist immediately to make an appointment.
How can dry socket be treated?
Dry socket is not pleasant, but it can easily be treated. It’s just a slightly longer and more complicated healing process than a “non-dry” socket. Here are some things to expect from dry socket treatment:
- Medicated dressings: Your dentist will apply specially medicated dressings to the inside of your mouth to cover up the socket and protect your exposed nerve endings. This will help relieve pain and stimulate your gums and jawbone to heal.
- Pain medication: Of course, you’re going to need pain relief. Your dentist can prescribe you some – or you might be able to treat the pain just with over-the-counter pills like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Flushing out the socket: Your dentist will give you self-care instructions on how to keep your dry socket clean and free of debris – this is a critical part of recovering from a dry socket.
- Time: It takes awhile to recover from a dry socket – usually around 10-14 days. But most patients are able to return to school, work and normal activities within the first few days.
Having a dry socket can be painful and a bit discouraging, but if you quickly recognize the problem and can get treated, you’ll be on the road to recovery before you know it.