It’s the classic anxiety dream: Your teeth are crumbling and falling out of your mouth. But would you know what to do in real life if you or your child suddenly lost a tooth? Every year, accidents knock more than 5 million teeth out of the mouths of kids and adults.

If a tooth is knocked out, the right actions can be the difference between keeping and losing it.

The American Dental Association and the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) offer this advice on how to save the tooth.

  • Locate the tooth and pick it up by the crown — not the root. If you touch the root, you may damage it.
  • If the tooth is dirty, rinse it in water. Do not use soap or toothpaste or brush it.
  • Immediately reposition it back into the socket. The faster the tooth is replaced, the more likely it will survive. Hold the tooth in place with your fingers or your bite.
  • If you can’t put it back in, it’s crucial that the tooth stay moist. Never dry it or wrap it in a tissue. The best place to transport it is in your mouth, between your cheek and gums.
  • If your child has knocked her tooth out and she’s too upset to hold the tooth in her mouth (or she’s too young to do so without swallowing it), transport the tooth in milk. The AAE does not recommend using tap water because the root cannot tolerate water well.
  • See a dentist within 30 minutes for the best chance of saving your tooth. (The dentist may still be able to save your tooth even if you can’t get there for an hour or more.)

Related: Oral Health: How Much Do You Know About Dental Health?

Other tooth injuries

Eating, playing, falling — there are plenty of ways to damage a tooth. Brush up on how to handle these dental disasters.

A broken tooth: You took a bad fall or your child was hit in the face with a baseball. The result: a broken tooth. Keep the broken part if it’s small and in one piece; a dentist may be able to put it back on.

If it hurts when you breathe through your mouth or drink cold fluids, bite down on a moist piece of gauze until you reach your dentist.

If a large chunk of your tooth has broken off, you may need a cap or a crown to return your tooth to its full use. If the fracture exposes the root, you may also need a root canal.

Related: 6 Surprising Ways to Brush Your Teeth Better

A cracked or split tooth: A crack in a tooth, often caused by grinding your teeth or biting down on something hard, like an errant pebble, means you have a fracture running from the chewing surface toward your gum. Early detection can save the tooth.

Split teeth usually result from a crack in the tooth that has spread. Even if the crack doesn’t hurt at first, see a dentist right away because it will get worse over time. If your tooth splits under the gum line into the root, the dentist cannot treat it. It will need to be pulled. But if the crack only reaches the pulp, a dentist can protect the tooth by capping or crowning it.

Even the tiniest crack or hole in your tooth will give bacteria a way to invade and slowly destroy it, so be sure to get it fixed.

A chipped tooth: Chipped teeth are the most common of all dental injuries, according to the AAE. If you can, save the “chip” because a dentist might be able to reattach it. See your dentist as soon as possible to prevent the tooth from chipping further. If you don’t have the chip or it crumbled, don’t worry. The dentist can bond the tooth or place a cap to make it look normal again.

A dislodged tooth: Sometimes an accident will push the entire tooth into or sideways in it socket, moving the whole root. In this event, your dentist will likely reposition the tooth with his hands, then stabilize it with a splint.

You may need a root canal after this kind of trauma to the root, especially if you have a fracture to the root close to the gum line.

Related: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Flossing Your Teeth

Ana Manley-Black, J.D., is a former immigration attorney and a freelance health and medical writer whose stories have appeared in Healthday, Consumer Health Interactive, and other media.