Lack of Dental Care Can Kill You

Many Americans die from preventable dental disease because they can't afford care.

Under the headline “Man Dies From Toothache, Couldn’t Afford Meds,” ABC News reports,

A 24-year-old Cincinnati father died from a tooth infection this week because he couldn’t afford his medication, offering a sobering reminder of the importance of oral health and the number of people without access to dental or health care.

According to NBC affiliate WLWT, Kyle Willis’ wisdom tooth started hurting two weeks ago. When dentists told him it needed to be pulled, he decided to forgo the procedure, because he was unemployed and had no health insurance. When his face started swelling and his head began to ache, Willis went to the emergency room, where he received prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medications. Willis couldn’t afford both, so he chose the pain medications. The tooth infection spread, causing his brain to swell. He died Tuesday.


“People don’t realize that dental disease can cause serious illness,” said Dr. Irvin Silverstein, a dentist at the University of California at San Diego. “The problems are not just cosmetic. Many people die from dental disease.”

The problem’s actually worse than that, however. Dental care is inordinately expensive  even for those of us with outstanding medical insurance. I’ve generally been fortunate to have both dental coverage and good teeth but routine dental procedures like getting a crown put on a broken tooth can cost hundreds of dollars beyond what the insurance covers. X-rays are often not covered and seldom adequately covered.  That’s mildly annoying for those of us making a decent living; it’s cause for making hard choices for most people.

Additional, what’s not widely understood is that turning 65 means that even people with Cadillac dental insurance are screwed. People are almost always forced off the plans they had in their working years and into Medicare–which carries no meaningful dental coverage. It’s a truly bizarre system.

UPDATE: The combination of the awkwardness of commenting on a young man’s death and using it as a hook to make a point about my pre-existing thoughts about the state of dental care in America led me to skip over the obvious. As both Matt Yglesias and Donald Douglas point out, Willis made a horribly poor choice here; obviously the antibiotics take precedence over pain meds. Further, as Lonely Conservative notes, one can get prescriptions filled at Wal-Mart and elsewhere for as low as $4. There were alternatives here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Yet another disillusioned pawn says:

    There’s really very little Cadillac in “Cadillac dental coverage.” The very best dental coverages that I ever had were from the Teamsters in the 70s and 80s and from the evil, vile, corrupt, confiscatory teacher’s union coverage in the 90s. Even then, I paid 50% on everything that wasn’t a dental exam or an amalgam filling. X-rays were mostly covered, though.

    In Korea, where I am currently living, the socialistic confiscatory national health insurance doesn’t cover dental care at all and insurance for dental care is fairly expensive. On the other hand, because Korean dentists use computer imaging, an “x-ray” costs about $2. Other charges run about half of US rates.

  2. Again, this seems something of a gate keeping problem here. Getting a tooth pulled is a pretty simple procedure, one that shouldn’t require a full doctor to perform and cost hundreds of dollars.

  3. Bob Abo says:

    @Stormy Dragon: It doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. A simple extraction would probably run you about $80.

  4. Drew says:

    Perhaps it is best to not make this a moral referendum on the guy. Rather, take the opportunity to point out that systemic infections left uncontrolled can be catastrophic, even if you think “its just a tooth.”

  5. Moderate Mom says:

    One thing that struck me as so strange about the story is the deceased’s aunt (mentioned prominently in the story) is the wife of Bootsy Collins, a pretty famous musician. What, they couldn’t afford to help her nephew out with either getting the tooth extracted or with paying for the prescriptions? And now the family is raising money for a funeral? Again, what are families for,if not to help out other members during times of need?

  6. mark says:

    The issue of affordability of dentistry is a worldwide issue. It is a shame most people struggle to afford what I think is an essential health service.