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Updated on August 16, 2022

Is a Tooth Abscess an Emergency? Will The ER Drain an Abscess?

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What is a Tooth Abscess?

A tooth abscess, or a dental abscess, is a collection of pus in or around a tooth. Pus is a thick, oozing white or yellow-white liquid that is the result of a bacterial infection.

When the body sends an inflammatory response to fight off the infection, the buildup of cells increases pressure at the infection site, leading to severe pain.

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A tooth abscess is a painful pocket of pus that forms around a tooth. It is caused by a bacterial infection.

What Causes Tooth Abscesses?

The cause of dental abscesses is always a dental infection. Dental infections can begin inside the tooth or around the tooth. An abscess can also form due to gum disease.

dental abscess

Those inside the tooth are called “endodontic infections”, and they involve the nerves and blood vessels within the tooth. Usually, endodontic infections are caused by large cavities, cracks, or trauma. Eventually, endodontic infections spread to the end of the tooth’s root, infecting the bone surrounding the root.

Dental abscesses can also result from infections that begin in the gums and bone surrounding a tooth. These are called periodontal infections. It is important to know the difference when it comes to treatment if you want to save the tooth.

Endodontic infections usually require root canal treatment, and periodontal infections may require gum surgery. If you do not want to save the tooth, the treatment is extraction for either type of infection.

Your dentist is able to readily distinguish between endodontic and periodontal infections because they look quite different on a dental x-ray.


A tooth abscess is always caused by a dental infection (e.g., cavities, cracks, or injuries). If the infection spreads to the tooth's root, an abscess can form.

Why is a Tooth Abscess So Dangerous?

Regardless of where the infection began, when left untreated, it will spread.

In many cases, the infection spreads outward in a small pimple-like swelling that can drain and release pressure (called a fistula). This type of abscess may not hurt at all.

In other cases, the infection spreads inward to some deadly areas. If a dental infection spreads to the bloodstream, it leads to a condition called septicemia.

An infection that spreads to the soft tissues under the tongue can block the airway. If an infection from the upper teeth spreads, it can reach the brain. All of these situations can be deadly.


Untreated abscesses can spread to other areas of the body, leading to life-threatening conditions like septicemia or a brain abscess. Prompt treatment is necessary to prevent spreading.

When is a Tooth Abscess an Emergency?

Because it is difficult to predict how a dental infection will spread, it is best to assume that any tooth abscess is an emergency.

Any visible swelling in the gums, whether it causes pain or not, could be dangerous, and you should seek urgent dental care. 

The goal of emergency treatment is to stop the spread of the infection. This will typically involve prescription antibiotics. In severe cases, it can involve intravenous antibiotics and a procedure called an incision and drainage in which a surgeon “opens” the swelling to allow the pus to drain out. This relieves pressure and reduces pain.

You should never attempt to drain an abscess on your own at home. Opening a swelling without sterile instruments and infection control actually worsens the infection by introducing different types of bacteria.


A tooth abscess is always an emergency. Only a dentist can drain an abscess safely. Do not try to pop or drain an absess at home.

Will The ER Drain an Abscess Tooth?

You can visit the Emergency Room (ER) for a dental emergency (such as a tooth abscess).

However, the ER will only be able to treat you if the underlying condition is health-related. The ER will bill you through your health insurance, not dental insurance.

If you have a life-threatening abscessed tooth, you will need to visit an emergency dental clinic. ER doctors can prescribe you antibiotics and pain medications until you are able to book an appointment with your dentist for treatment. You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers if you have an extreme toothache.


ER doctors can only prescribe medications/antibiotics. They will not drain a tooth abscess. You must visit a dentist or emergency dentist for proper treatment.

What Should I Do if I Have a Tooth Abscess?

As soon as you notice any swelling or pain in your mouth, you should seek dental care. The earlier you catch a tooth abscess, the lower the risk for spreading the infection. 

In order to access care, you should call your local dentist or oral surgeon. 

What’s the Takeaway?

Take swellings in the gum seriously. Seek urgent care from a dentist as soon as possible to stop the spread of dental infection. Avoid going to the emergency room if possible.

Last updated on August 16, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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