Let’s say that you’ve never really had problems with your teeth. You clean your teeth well. You generally make dental appointments. Then one day a tooth suddenly starts to hurt. Not only that, it might start to change color, going from the same white as your other teeth and turning a dark brown, gray, or even black. 

What is going on? What’s likely happening is that your tooth is dying, and possibly infected. Left untreated, this tooth will continue to hurt and to discolor. It can even turn into a very serious situation unless it’s evaluated and treated properly. 

While enjoying her time in the park during autumn, this senior woman is concerned with how that one of her teeth is starting to become discolored and developing pain. So what is going on with her oral health?

Why a Tooth Might Die “Spontaneously”

This situation is uncommon, but it’s not rare. We see it often enough at our practice, and we can put you at ease that there are solutions that can restore your smile–and even save your tooth!

Teeth sometimes seem to die without any visible cause, but the explanation is usually straightforward. 

The most common reason why a tooth will die is a large cavity that penetrates into the living part of the tooth, called the pulp. Bacteria are the source of cavities, and once the cavity reaches the tooth interior, bacteria infect the space, crowding and killing the tooth nerve. 

However, this is rarely a “spontaneous” death. Cavities tend to grow slowly, and if you make your regular checkups and do your at-home hygiene as you should, one of us is likely to identify the problem before it kills the tooth. Between regular diagnostic x-rays and advanced detection technology like DIAGNOdent, we are very good at detecting cavities when they’re small.

More likely, the tooth has been damaged by trauma. People often experience serious tooth trauma but forget it once they realize that their tooth looks fine. Even if the tooth is a little loose, you might pay attention for a couple days, then forget when the tooth seems to heal up fine. 

But the tooth might not be fine. Trauma can disrupt the pulp, interrupting its blood supply, which can cause it to die. This sometimes takes a long time. Other times, the trauma can cause a small crack in the tooth that you either don’t notice or can’t see because it’s below the gum line. Bacteria invade the tooth through the crack, killing it. 

To Save the Tooth or Not to Save the Tooth?

Once your tooth has started to die, we can’t stop the process. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t save the tooth. The living part of the tooth serves little purpose once the tooth has finished developing–your tooth can be healthy, functional, and beautiful without it. 

This is what root canal therapy does: removes the living part of the tooth so you experience no pain and no infection, then restores the tooth to its previous beauty and function, usually with a dental crown. Often, this is the best way to deal with a dying tooth. 

However, sometimes the tooth can’t be saved. If, for example, there is a crack below the gum line, we likely won’t be able to seal the tooth and protect it from infection. Plus, that crack is likely to make the tooth fail in the future. In that case, it’s better to extract the tooth and replace it.

We have many tooth replacement options, though the best in this situation is likely a dental implant. Sometimes a dental bridge might work, but that’s a special case. 

Don’t Neglect a Dying Tooth

If you have a tooth that’s suddenly started hurting or has become dark, you should take it very seriously. A dying tooth is either infected or can become so quite easily, and tooth infections have serious health consequences. They can even be deadly, if the infection spreads through the body. 

If you are concerned about the health of one or more of your teeth, please call (314) 375-5353 today for an appointment with St. Louis dentist Dr. Chris Hill at City Smiles.