Youth sports are popular and wholesome activities, but there is a risk for children’s teeth. Experts say about 3 million student teeth will be lost in any given year during youth sports.

The chances of saving a knocked-out tooth decrease after the first few minutes. This means that it is vital for parents, coaches and caretakers to be prepared to provide proper first aid.

The National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, about 3 million teeth will be knocked out as about 30 million youths participate in athletics this year. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General reports that craniofacial injuries account for a full third of all non-fatal sports injuries overall. And it’s not just football, with its violent clashes of pads and helmets.

“Basketball and baseball are the two biggest mouth-injuring sports,” reports Dr. Stephen Mitchell, of the University of Alabama’s Department of Pediatric Dentistry. “And the most common injuries we see are broken, displaced or knocked-out teeth, and broken jaws.”

In part, this is because mouthguards and face-protecting helmets are not required for many sports, as they are in football, hockey and lacrosse. Mitchell recommends custom-fit mouthguards as the most effective insurance against tooth trauma for youth with permanent teeth. For younger children, with baby teeth, he recommends over-the-counter mouthguards that can be heated and molded to the teeth since their dentition is in transition.

About a quarter of dental injuries can still occur with mouthguards in place. Quick first-aid action and dental treatment may save a lost tooth. And the cost of not acting quickly to save a permanent tooth can be dramatic.

The National Youth Sports Safety Foundation estimates that the cost to treat a lost permanent tooth and provide follow-up care ranges from $5,000 to $20,000 over a lifetime.

If a tooth is broken or cracked, parents should get the young athlete to the dentist within 24 hours. But if the tooth is knocked out, there is no time to wait. Action must be taken within minutes to have the best chance to save the tooth.

First aid steps include:

  • Speed – it’s best to perform the first aid within five minutes. By the time the tooth has been in the open air for 60 minutes, the window of opportunity is nearly gone.
  • Replace the tooth in its socket if at all possible. The best chance of saving the tooth is to get the root back into its natural habitat.
  • Don’t rub or even touch the root, or try to clean the tooth, which can damage the still-living delicate tissues.
  • If you have milk, you can rinse the tooth with milk before implanting. But avoid water – it can cause delicate cells to burst. Do not place in or on ice.
  • If you can’t put the tooth back in the socket, you can have the child carry the tooth in the mouth, inside the gum, if the child is old enough not to swallow it.
  • If implanting or carrying the tooth in the mouth isn’t possible, carry the tooth in a medium to keep it safely wet, including Hank’s Balanced Salt Solution (or HBSS), milk, medical saline or saliva.
  • Go to the emergency room immediately, and follow up with your regular dentist for long-term monitoring of the healing process.