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What Is Dry Socket, Actually?

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If you've just had your wisdom teeth removed, your dentist or oral surgeon probably mentioned something about dry socket as you were leaving the office. He or she probably told you not to use a straw to drink and not to swish anything around too hard in your mouth, lest you develop this condition. But do you really know what dry socket is or how it develops? Here's a look at a few more details about this condition, so you can prevent, identify and -- if needed -- treat it as well as possible.

What is a dry socket and how does it form?

Each of your teeth rest in a socket, or little hole in the jaw bone. When your tooth is pulled out of your mouth, the socket it once rested in is left empty. There is no actual tissue between the bone and nerves that form the socket, and the interior of your mouth. Soon after the tooth is pulled, however, a blood clot forms in the socket. This clot serves as a separation between the sensitive nerves and bone in your tooth socket and the interior of your mouth.

Now, if that blood clot becomes dislodged, you're left with what is known as a "dry socket." Without the blood clot in place, the nerves and bone in your tooth socket are exposed directly to the interior of your mouth.

What symptoms and issues does dry socket cause?

When most people think about dry socket, they think about searing pain. Since the nerves in your socket are directly exposed, you'll feel sharp pain when you eat, drink, breathe through your mouth, or put any pressure on the area from which the tooth was removed. However, pain is not the only consequence of dry socket -- the empty socket can also get infected when it's not protected by a blood clot.

Who is at risk for dry socket and how do you decrease your risk?

People who smoke are at an increased risk of developing dry socket, since smoking impedes healing ability and the act of sucking on a cigarette may dislodge the clot. Taking corticosteriod medications or birth control pills also increases the risk of dry socket.

You can help prevent dry socket by being very gentle with your mouth in the days following surgery. Follow your dentist's or oral surgeon's orders for avoiding straw use and not swishing anything in your mouth very vigorously. When brushing your teeth, be very gentle around the area from which your tooth was removed, and avoid smoking tobacco. If you're a smoker and have a difficult time quitting prior to surgery, try using a nicotine patch to get you through this healing period so you do not develop dry socket.

If you develop a searing pain in your mouth after wisdom tooth surgery, contact your dentist or oral surgeon such as those at Campus Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery. Chances are, you have dry socket. It will need to be treated with special rinses and gauze packing, and possibly antibiotics as well.