Your teeth are alive and need a constant supply of blood and nutrients to stay healthy and continue to function. However, certain things like trauma, infection, or decay can damage a tooth to the point where it is no longer alive. A dying or dead tooth can result in pain, discoloration, loss of tooth, or—in certain cases—infection that can spread to other parts of the body. Fortunately, a dying tooth can be saved if you act fast. 

What causes a tooth to die?

Your teeth contain a soft, inner material called pulp, and are supplied with a nerve ending and blood vessel. If any of these structures are compromised, a tooth can begin to die. Some of the most common ways teeth die are:

  • Injury: A tooth that has sustained trauma may have a compromised blood supply to damage the internal blood vessel.
  • Infection: Infection in the pulp or inner structures of a tooth can damage the tissue and lead to a dead tooth. Infection is commonly caused by poor dental hygiene, leading to decay of the hard outer layer of enamel and leaving the root susceptible to bacteria.
  • Previous dental treatment: Certain procedures, like large fillings, can destroy too much of the tooth’s pulp to continue to supply the tooth with blood and nutrients. This can be exacerbated by factors like the transfer of heat and cold through a tooth.

What are the symptoms of a dead or dying tooth?

Some of the most common symptoms of a dying tooth are pain, either from physical trauma to the tooth or from decay or infection affecting the root and inner pulp. Pain can often be either sharp and intermittent, or dull and lasting. Even pain that is once noticeable and then goes away can be a symptom that the nerve inside of the tooth has died, removing the sensation of pain while the infection or underlying problem still lingers.

Another common symptom is gradual discoloration of the tooth. As the blood supply diminishes, you may notice the tooth in question go from its normal color to dull yellow, gray, or even black color. Other symptoms may include sensitivity around the tooth or gum, or bad breath from the bacteria inside the tooth. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should contact your dentist right away as time is crucial when trying to save a dying tooth.

How to save a dying tooth?

In many cases, the two most effective courses of action for a dying tooth are either a root canal treatment or full tooth extraction.  

A root canal is a procedure where your dentist will remove the infected pulp and nerve ending inside the tooth and replace it with a plastic like material before sealing it to ward off future infection. The tooth will last in place for a long time if proper dental hygiene is observed, but because a root canal can make a tooth brittle, your dentist may also elect to fit a crown or sealant over the tooth as well.

If a tooth has died entirely or has decayed too much, the only course of action is to remove the tooth completely. At this time, your dentist can tell you options to replace the tooth with an implant or prostheses. 

A dead or dying tooth will not heal on its own and delaying treatment could cause further damage to the tooth—and eventually to surrounding structures like the gums and jaw. Root canals are mostly painless, with patients feeling only some mild pressure during the operation and perhaps some sensitivity in the days and weeks after the tooth heals. Root canals are a safe and effective way to treat dying and dead teeth before they worsen.