What Is Dry Socket?

by Leigh A. Morgan
A medically accurate 3D illustration shows the dry socket condition after a tooth extraction as the brown colored extracted tooth sits to the side of the crater left behind among three other healthy white teeth and pink gums, teeth, white teeth, gums, pink gums, extracted tooth, crater, brown tooth, mouth, inside mouth, 3D illustration, illustration, 3D, dental, dental procedure, medical, medical procedure, dentist, tooth extraction, tooth, extraction, pulled tooth

No matter how old you are, there are few things worse than waking up with a throbbing tooth. Never mind munching on candy apples or taking a big ol' bite of toffee — you can barely have a few sips of water without wincing in pain. Fortunately, your dentist has plenty of tricks up their sleeve to help you feel better. In some cases, it's best to extract the wayward tooth instead of trying to fix the problem with a root canal.

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Extraction is fairly simple, but there are a few potential complications, including dry socket. Before you have a tooth pulled, find out what dry socket is and learn how to avoid it.

What Is Dry Socket?

Dry socket is a painful dental condition that sometimes occurs after you have a tooth pulled. This complication occurs in up to 5% of tooth extractions.

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How Does Dry Socket Happen?

When a dentist or an oral surgeon pulls your tooth, your body responds by sending protein and platelets to the extraction site. This causes a clot to form, preventing excessive bleeding and getting the healing process off on the right foot. Dry socket occurs due to one of the following reasons:

  • The clot doesn't form as expected.
  • Something causes the clot to pull away from the extraction site.

Without a clot, there's nothing to cover the bones and nerves underneath. As a result, dry socket is extremely painful. Although dry socket can happen anywhere in the mouth, it commonly occurs when people have their wisdom teeth removed.

What Are the Symptoms of Dry Socket?

Pain is one of the most common symptoms of dry socket. The pain usually gets worse two or three days after the procedure, since all the anesthetic has worn off by then. Some people have mild pain, but others report severe discomfort. You may also feel like the pain is radiating to your neck or head.

If you have dry socket, you may also have bad breath or notice a foul taste in your mouth. This happens because irritated bone produces a yucky-smelling discharge.

What Should You Do If You Suspect Dry Socket?

Dry socket slows down the healing process, so don't ignore it. If you think you may have dry socket, contact your dentist immediately. They may want to apply a medicated dressing to the extraction site or give you oral medication to control the pain. If there are bits of food in the socket, your dentist may want to flush them out to prevent irritation and reduce the risk of infection.

After your appointment, make sure you follow your dentist's instructions. You may have to flush the extraction site several times per day or take medication according to a specific schedule. If you get treatment right away and follow your dentist's tips for at-home care, the pain of dry socket should start to go away after a few days.

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Tips for Preventing Dry Socket

The good news is that there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of dry socket, including the following:

Avoid Smoking

The first — and probably the most important — is to avoid smoking cigarettes. When you inhale, you create suction with your mouth, which can dislodge the clot at the extraction site. Smoking also slows down the healing process, so do your best to stop smoking at least a few days before your procedure.

Alter Your Dietary Habits

Next, adjust your dietary habits as recommended by your dentist. Generally, it's wise to stick with soft foods for a few days. Think blended soups, mashed potatoes, pudding and gelatin. Soft foods are easy to chew, and they're less likely to disrupt the clot at your extraction site.

In contrast, nuts, potato chips, popcorn and other snack foods produce tiny crumbs that can lodge themselves in the socket. Remember it this way: "If it makes a crunch, you shouldn't munch." It's also important to avoid straws while you're healing. Drinking through a straw produces the same type of suction as inhaling from a cigarette. Therefore, using straws increases the risk of dry socket.

Practice Good Oral Hygiene

Finally, practice good oral hygiene. Your dentist may tell you to avoid brushing for 24 hours, but after that, you should brush gently with a nonabrasive toothpaste. If you want to gargle with salt water or alcohol-free mouthwash, avoid vigorous swishing.

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