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Enamel — or the tough, outer covering of your teeth — is one of the strongest substances in your body. But it does have it limits. A forceful blow or excessive wear and tear can cause teeth to chip. The result is a jagged tooth surface that can be sharp, tender, and disfiguring.
Teeth can chip for any number of reasons. Common causes include:
- biting down on hard substances, like ice or hard candy
- falls or car accidents
- playing contact sports without a mouth guard
- grinding your teeth when you sleep
It makes sense that weakened teeth are more likely to chip than strong teeth. Some things that reduce the strength of a tooth include:
- Tooth decay and cavities eat away at enamel. Large fillings also tend to weaken teeth.
- Teeth grinding can wear down enamel.
- Eating a lot of acid-producing foods, such as fruit juices, coffee, and spicy foods can break down enamel and leave the surface of teeth exposed.
- Acid reflux or heartburn, two digestive conditions, can bring stomach acid up into your mouth, where they can damage tooth enamel.
- Eating disorders or excessive alcohol use can cause frequent vomiting, which in turn can produce enamel-eating acid.
- Sugar produces bacteria in your mouth, and that bacteria can attack enamel.
- Tooth enamel wears down over time, so if you’re 50 years or older, your risk of having weakened enamel increases. In one study published in the Journal of Endodontics, nearly two-thirds of those with cracked teeth were over 50.
Which teeth are at risk?
Any weakened tooth is at risk. But one study shows that the second lower molar — possibly because it takes a fair amount of pressure when chewing — and teeth with fillings are most prone to chipping. That being said, intact teeth are also subject to chipping.
If the chip is minor and not at the front of your mouth, you may not know you have it at all. When you do have symptoms, however, they may include:
- feeling a jagged surface when you run your tongue over your teeth
- irritation of the gum around the chipped tooth.
- irritation of your tongue from “catching” it on the tooth’s uneven and rough edge
- pain from pressure on the tooth when biting, which can be intense if the chip is near to or exposes the nerves of the tooth
Your dentist can make a diagnosis of a chipped tooth via visible inspection of your mouth. They’ll also take into account your symptoms and ask you about events that may have caused the chipping.
Treatment of a chipped tooth generally depends on its location, severity, and symptoms. Unless it’s causing severe pain and significantly interfering with eating and sleeping, it’s not a medical emergency.
Still, you should make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible to avoid infection or further damage to the tooth. A minor chip can usually be treated by simply smoothing and polishing the tooth.
For more extensive chips your doctor may recommend the following:
If you still have the tooth fragment that broke off, place it in a glass of milk to keep it moist. The calcium will help keep it alive. If you don’t have milk tuck it into your gum, making sure not to swallow it.
Then get to your dentist immediately. They may be able to cement the fragment back onto your tooth.
A composite resin (plastic) material or porcelain (layers of ceramic) is cemented to the surface of your tooth and shaped to its form. Ultraviolet lights are used to harden and dry the material. After drying, more shaping is done until the material fits your tooth exactly.
Bonds can last up to 10 years.
Before attaching a veneer, your dentist will smooth away some of the tooth’s enamel to make room for the veneer. Usually, they’ll shave away less than a millimeter.
Your dentist will make an impression of your tooth and send it to a lab to create the veneer. (A temporary veneer may be used in the meantime.) When the permanent veneer is ready, your dentist will bond it to your tooth.
Thanks to the durable materials, the veneer could last about 30 years.
If the chip only affects a part of your tooth, your dentist may suggest a dental onlay, which is often applied to the surface of molars. (If damage to your tooth is significant, your dentist might recommend a full dental crown.) You may receive anesthesia so the dentist can work on your teeth to make sure there is room for an onlay.
In many cases, your doctor will take a mold of your tooth and send it to a dental lab to create the onlay. Once they have the onlay, they will fit it onto your tooth and then cemented it on.
With advances in technology, some dentists can mill porcelain onlays right in the office and place them that day.
Dental onlays can last for decades, but a lot depends on whether you eat a lot of foods that put wear and tear on the onlay and what tooth was affected. For example, one that gets a lot of pressure when you chew, such as a molar, will wear more easily.
Costs vary greatly by what part of the country you live in. Other factors are what tooth is involved, the extent of the chip, and whether the pulp of the tooth (where the nerves are) is affected. In general, though, here’s what you might expect to pay:
- Tooth planing or smoothing. About $100.
- Tooth reattachment. You’ll have to pay for the dental exam, which is usually between $50 to $350. However, because tooth reattachment doesn’t require much in the way of materials, the charge should be minimal.
- Bonding. $100 to $1,000, depending on the complexity involved.
- Veneers or onlays. $500 to $2,000, but this will depend on the material used and how much the tooth has to be prepared before affixing the veneer/crown.
While you most likely will need a dentist to repair a chipped tooth, there are steps you can take to reduce injury to the tooth until you see your doctor.
- Place temporary dental filling material, a teabag, sugar-free gum, or dental wax over the jagged edge of the tooth to protect your tongue and gums.
- Take an anti-inflammatory painkiller such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) if you have pain.
- Place ice on the outside of your cheek if the chipped tooth is causing irritation to the area.
- Floss to remove food caught between your teeth, which can cause even more pressure on your chipped tooth when you chew.
- Avoid chewing using the chipped tooth.
- Swipe clove oil around any painful gums to numb the area.
- Wear a protective mouth guard when you play sports or at night if you grind your teeth.
When the chip is so extensive that it starts to affect the root of your tooth, infection can ensue. Treatment usually is a root canal. Here, some symptoms of such an infection:
- pain when eating
- sensitivity to hot and cold
- bad breath or sour taste in your mouth
- swollen glands in your neck or jaw area
A chipped tooth is a common dental injury. In most cases, it doesn’t produce significant pain and can be successfully treated using a variety of dental procedures.
While it’s usually not considered a dental emergency, the sooner you get treatment, the better the chances of limiting any dental problems. Recovery is generally fast once the dental procedure is complete.