Bolton defender Zat Knight's late own goal gifted Sunderland only their second win in 12 league games as the Black Cats snatched a 2-1 victory at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday.
Knight deflected in a shot from Ghana midfielder Sulley Muntari in the 90th minute as Steve Bruce's side finally ended their lingering relegation fears.
Stand-in captain Bolo Zenden put Sunderland ahead on the stroke of half-tme before Bolton substitute Ivan Klasnic appeared to have rescued a point with an equaliser three minutes from time.
Sunderland are now nine points clear of the bottom three and just two points behind eighth-placed Bolton.
Bolton came close to opening the scoring in the 11th minute when Kevin Davies set up Matt Taylor with a clever reverse ball.
It seemed Taylor had to score, only for goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to make a superb point-blank save.
The Trotters swept forward again eight minutes later and Daniel Sturridge went down in the area following a challenge by John Mensah but referee Kevin Friend allowed play to continue.
Johan Elmander then dragged a free-kick wide of the post for Bolton before Phil Bardsley escaped his marker but headed wide after being set up by Jordan Henderson.
Owen Coyle's team almost made the breakthrough when Sturridge's effort came off Bardsley and rattled the bar.
Davies reacted quickly only for his effort to be turned around the post and the visitors breathed a sigh of relief.
Sunderland went ahead in first-half stoppage-time when Zenden skipped around Jussi Jaaskelainen to score his first goal of the season after being set up by Stephane Sessegnon.
The Black Cats almost extended their lead a minute into the second half as Sessegnon forced a good save from Jaaskelainen.
Bolton responded in the 50th minute with on-loan Chelsea striker Sturridge firing a shot narrowly wide of the post after being set by Ricardo Gardner.
Lee Chung-Yong should have equalised from close range after Bardsley had diverted Sturridge's goalbound effort into his path.
It seemed that miss would not matter when Rodrigo Moreno delivered a superb ball to the back post in the 87th minute and Klasnic headed into the far corner of the net.
But, after Rodrigo nearly scored a stoppage-time winner for the hosts, Muntari was set up by Sessegnon and Knight deflected the shot into his own goal.