An abscess is a pocket of pus that forms in your body’s tissues because of an infection (generally a bacterial infection). Dental abscesses affect the teeth and adjacent jaw tissue where you’ve had a tooth or gum infection.
There are two significant types of abscesses:
There is also a third type, pericoronitis, which is far less common. This type of abscess affects the operculum (gum flap) that covers a tooth that has not yet erupted through the gum.
All abscesses happen inside the tooth, as your teeth are made up of various layers. The enamel is the outermost protective layer, which covers a softer protective layer called the dentin. But underneath them is the pulp, which holds the tooth’s nerves and blood vessels. The pulp makes up the center of the tooth, which connects it to the jawbone. The pulp can become infected if bacteria gets inside, which can occur with cavities.
Dental abscesses can be uncomfortable and even very painful if left untreated. The symptoms of a dental abscess include, but are not limited to, the following:
Not everyone will experience all of the above symptoms. The quicker you catch the dental abscess, the milder your symptoms will likely be. By regularly keeping tabs on your dental health, you’re sure to catch cavities that could lead to abscesses before they do.
If the infected tooth is left untreated, an abscessed tooth infection can spread. If the pulp becomes infected, it can easily spread to the bone of the jaw to which it’s attached. If there is plaque (tooth decay) or you have gingivitis in the area of the dental abscess, either could exacerbate the infection, as well.
In severe dental infection cases, an abscessed tooth can cause the following symptoms:
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, you should contact your dentist immediately. The longer you let a dental abscess go untreated, the worse these symptoms can get. If breathing becomes too difficult or your fever becomes too high, that’s when a dental abscess can become life-threatening.
Dental abscesses can happen to anyone. It happens, most commonly, when you have a cavity that erodes through the enamel and dentin of your tooth, exposing the pulp to bacteria. But some people develop abscesses in teeth that haven’t yet erupted through the gum.
If you don’t brush your teeth, floss, or visit your dentist at least twice annually, as recommended, you increase your chances of developing a dental abscess or periodontal disease. The better you take care of your teeth, the healthier they’ll be.
If you treat your dental abscess correctly, it is not life-threatening. Dentists can typically treat dental abscesses easily with antibiotics and/or a root canal. However, if the infection spreads and becomes more severe, you may need further treatment like an extraction and drainage of the swelling.
A root canal treatment involves removing the dead and infected pulpal tissue of the affected tooth. Typically, the dentist will administer a local anesthetic to numb the parts of the mouth that are affected by the abscess for pain relief. After cleaning out the pulp, the dentist will smooth it out and replace the pulp with a filling.
If the infection is too severe and has spread, the dentist will likely prescribe antibiotics to kill off the bacteria. Antibiotics used to treat dental infections typically include penicillin and amoxicillin, though other options are available.
As always, practicing proper oral hygiene by cleaning your teeth with a toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day, flossing daily, avoiding sugary foods, and going to regular dental check-ups can help prevent abscesses from happening. Your dental health is important, and the more you look after your teeth with regular oral care, the less you’ll have to worry about painful problems or costly dental procedures down the line.
Root canals can usually be done in an hour or less. But you may still feel pain and tenderness in the area for a few days, and it can take a few weeks for your tooth to fully heal. Your dentist will schedule checkups with you to make sure that you are healing properly.
An extraction will be the definitive treatment option to clear up the infected tooth. Once extracted, the infection will naturally drain through the empty socket. It can take several days for an abscess to completely heal.
While you may take time to recover from a dental abscess, there are some signs of which you should be aware that your dental abscess is not healing correctly. If you are experiencing extreme pain that isn’t going away with painkillers, you have had or develop a fever, or you have had or develop difficulty eating, speaking, or breathing, you may still have an infection that could be worsening.
If you are experiencing any of the above severe symptoms of a dental abscess, contact a dentist immediately. While you may not be able to get to a dentist right away, an emergency visit to the hospital can at least get you the right antibiotics to keep the infection under control until a dentist can drain the abscess.
“Abscessed Teeth.” American Association of Endodontists, 29 Nov. 2017, www.aae.org/patients/dental-symptoms/abscessed-teeth/.
“Root Canal Treatment.” American Association of Endodontists, 2 Sept. 2020, www.aae.org/patients/root-canal-treatment/?gclid=CjwKCAiAt9z-BRBCEiwA_bWv-My3GzFR9218aCgRSk-uCNpt6h6lM1iFuzJmXl3XmSjTxx4QiMtBPxoCjvMQAvD_BwE.
“Signs of Tooth Abscess.” Ada, ada.com/conditions/dental-abscess/.