What is a Dead Tooth?

A dead or non-vital tooth refers to a tooth with a dead nerve. There are a few reasons why the nerve dies, but it must be treated if the patient wants to save the tooth. Left unattended, it can result in serious infection leading to a tooth abscess.


When a tooth’s nerve dies, there are two treatments available to the patient: pulling the tooth or performing a root canal. The nerve inside a tooth is like a sensor that lets the patient know when something is hot or cold. It also plays an important role in providing necessary nutrients to developing teeth. The death of a tooth can be caused by trauma. An injury to the tooth can be forceful enough that the blood vessels at the tip of the root are actually affected, limiting or cutting off the blood supply to the nerve. To remain alive, the nerve needs a constant supply of blood. When this flow is interrupted, the nerve begins to die. This is not a reversible process. As the nerve dies, some patients feel an extreme amount of pain and discomfort, but other patients do not feel anything at all.

Tooth Decay Origins

Tooth decay can also cause the nerve to die. When cavities develop due to tooth decay, they leave pathways open to the nerve, where bacteria can get in and cause infection. If an infection begins in the nerve, the nerve begins to die. Wear and tear over the years can also cause the nerve to die. This is more common in people with bruxism who grind their teeth at night. The pressure put on some of the teeth can affect the blood vessels at the tip of the root, just like with trauma, and the blood flow to the nerve can either slow down or cease completely. This causes the nerve to die. While a tooth is dying, the patient can feel a lot of pain, but when the nerve dies completely, the pain might cease for a while.

Risk of Infection

Although in the immediate aftermath the color of the tooth remains the same, over time, it will begin to get darker as red blood cells penetrate the tooth. However, an untreated dead tooth can end up with an abscess developing. This infection is very painful and can be accompanied by fever, general discomfort, red and swollen gums and even a pus-filled open sore on the gum line by the affected tooth.

Root Canal Treatment

To treat a tooth with a dead nerve, a dentist can decide to pull the tooth. If the patient wants to try to save the tooth, the dentist can perform a root canal treatment to drain the pus from the tooth, if infection has set in, and remove the dead nerve. After a root canal, the tooth will need to be treated with a restoration, either a filling or for more extensive damage a dental crown. Some patients might be able to bleach their darkened tooth, so that it gets lighter and better matches the surrounding teeth.

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