Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, a permanent tooth must come out. Whether it be an infection, a wisdom tooth removal, an injury, or extensive cavities, occasionally it is necessary to resort to an extraction. As unpleasant as that thought might be, when an extraction is needed, having it done can be completely restorative, bringing back a condition of good health and quickly alleviating the misery that accompanied the ill health that called for an extraction to begin with.
However, an extraction does bring with it the risk of a particularly unpleasant complication that might cause you some concern if you are looking at an extraction in your future. Dry socket can make the relief possible from a timely extraction seem very remote. So, you may be wondering, “What causes dry socket, and when can I stop worrying about dry socket following an extraction?”
What is Dry Socket?
Dry socket, properly referred to as alveolar osteitis, is a problem with healing after a permanent tooth is extracted. When a permanent tooth is removed, it leaves a hole in your gums, which your body attempts to fill with a clot. This clot is very important. It keeps food, bacteria, and other contaminants out of the hole and is the beginning of the healing process that lets the gums close up over the small opening left by the removed tooth. In dry socket, the clot is pulled out or fails to develop in the first place, leaving the hole open and exposed. The open hole often looks dry, which is why it’s commonly referred to as dry socket.
Unfortunately, dry socket is not a small matter. In addition to feeling extremely unpleasant, it’s potentially dangerous for healing. The uncovered hole in the mouth dramatically increases the risk of infection in the gum or the bones of the jaw where the tooth was removed. The open hole has a tendency to trap food particles after eating and drinking, which can further aggravate infection risk while also causing pain and unpleasant smells.
What Causes Dry Socket?
Dry socket happens when healing is interrupted. There are a number of possible reasons you might be more likely to develop dry socket. If the gum tissue is already inflamed or infected when you have the tooth removed, it’s more likely. Smoking and tobacco use also inhibit healing and make dry socket more likely. Of course, it’s important to follow all of your dentist or oral surgeon’s care instructions completely to maximize your healing. Not following directions about rinsing, cleaning, and brushing can cause serious healing problems, including—but not limited to—dry socket. Using a straw to drink before your gums have healed completely is likely to pull the clot out and cause dry socket, so it’s vital to follow your care team’s instructions about using straws.
When Can I Stop Worrying About Dry Socket?
The risk of developing dry socket is present the entire time the hole is healing up. Usually, the gums close up in 7-10 days, but people do not all heal at exactly the same rate. You need to trust your care team and stay in communication with them while you are healing. Keep all appointments for follow-up care, and call your care team right away if you have excessive pain, if you develop a foul taste in the mouth, if you have excessive swelling, or if you begin to run a fever after a tooth extraction.
Will Dry Socket Heal On Its Own?
If you have or suspect you have dry socket, call your dental care team right away. The doctor who performed the extraction will help you treat the complication. While you are waiting to be seen, it’s a good idea to gently rinse with a warm (not hot!) salt-water solution. Salt water has a mild antibiotic effect and can promote healing of the gums. While a study has shown some potential for honey to aid healing, under no circumstances should you put anything in a dry socket without consulting your care team for help. Your dental care team may recommend an antibiotic rinse to help promote healing. You need to follow all care instructions meticulously to help promote healing and avoid further complications.
The Bite-Sized Takeaway: How to Prevent Dry Socket
Dry socket is nothing to trifle with. If you have to have a tooth removed, be sure to follow care instructions, avoid tobacco, skip the straw, and give yourself time to heal completely. Dry socket can arise at any point until the gum has healed, so keep all follow-up appointments and reach out for help if you experience any worrisome symptoms.