Oral surgery might not be something most adults get excited about, but in the majority of cases, the procedure goes off without a hitch and the patient’s quality of life and the condition of his or her mouth improves considerably.
While most procedures go smoothly, both during the surgery and during recovery, in some cases, a condition known as dry socket, or alveolar osteitis, can develop. A dry socket can be a painful thing to experience, but it is easily treatable, and in many cases, preventable.
What Is Dry Socket?
When you have your wisdom teeth removed or another tooth pulled during adulthood, a blood clot is supposed to form in the now empty socket. The clot protects the bone and any exposed nerves in the socket. It also helps the socket heal by encouraging the growth of bone and new soft tissue.
But in a few cases, the blood clot never forms or is somehow knocked loose. The bone and nerves in the socket are left exposed, which can cause a considerable amount of pain and discomfort on the side of the face where the tooth was extracted.
Many patients feel some amount of pain or discomfort. But in most cases that pain can be managed with either over-the-counter or prescription-strength pain medicines. When a patient develops dry socket, the pain suddenly becomes worse a few days after the tooth extraction and it doesn’t ease when a patient takes medicine. Along with worsening pain, the symptoms of dry socket can include a low fever, bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth, and swollen lymph nodes.
What Increases Your Risk for Dry Socket
Dry socket is pretty rare and usually only affects about 10 percent of patients. Certain habits, medications and choices can increase your risk for developing it, though. Having a pre-existing infection in the mouth increases the likelihood of you developing a dry socket, for example. The infection might be the reason why you are undergoing the oral surgery. For instance, if you have severe gum disease, your dentist might need to remove the affected tooth.
Not taking good care of your teeth and gums before and after your surgery can also increase your risk for dry socket. If you aren’t in the habit of brushing twice a day and flossing, the bacteria in your mouth can interfere with the blood clot after a tooth is pulled.
Habits or medicines that interfere with blood flow and the healing process can also play a part in the development of dry socket. Smoking is bad news for your teeth and gums, not just because it increases your risk for gum disease, but also because it increases your risk for dry socket. Nicotine and other harmful ingredients in tobacco products slow down healing and restrict blood flow. The ingredients in tobacco smoke can also irritate or inflame the area near the pulled tooth. Finally, the action of pulling on a cigarette to inhale the smoke can be strong enough to knock the blood clot out of place.
Medicines that can lead to dry socket include hormonal contraceptives and corticosteroids. High levels of estrogen in the bloodstream can interfere with healing, for instance.
The amount of pain you are experiencing determines the appropriate course of treatment for dry socket. In some cases, the pain is reduced by taking an over-the-counter medicine, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Many patients with the condition need something stronger, though, and some may even need the dentist to numb the area.
Cleaning and caring for the dry socket is also part of the treatment. Your dentist will most likely flush out the socket to remove any debris, such as pieces of food, that can get stuck in it. Packing the socket with medicated dressings is also common. The dressings help ease pain and discomfort, protect the socket, and speed up healing. Changing the dressings on a regular basis is essential, and your dentist might ask you to come in to the office daily to have them changed, until the socket is sufficiently healed.
Patients with dry socket are often given instructions for caring for the socket at home. Your dentist might give you a small plastic syringe to use to rinse out the socket, with saline or with a special rinse, so that debris doesn’t build up in it. You’ll most likely be told to brush gently around the area, to avoid disturbing the dressings or irritating the socket. Staying hydrated and applying cool compresses to the area can also help reduce discomfort and swelling.
Dry socket can be easily prevented before it occurs. If you’re a smoker, one of the best things you can do to prevent the condition is to quit smoking before your oral surgery and to avoid smoking or other tobacco products during the healing process. If you use oral contraceptives, you might want schedule your wisdom teeth to be removed when you are on the placebo pills or for a time when the amount of hormones in the pills is very low.
Your oral surgeon can also take steps to reduce the chance of dry socket developing after the extraction. At the Miami practice of Dr. Gallardo , for example, the oral surgeons use patient’s own growth factor protein to minimize the risk of dry sockets forming. To learn more about your options when it comes to removing teeth and the ways to prevent or treat dry socket, reach out to their practice for a consultation today by calling (305) 447-1447.