Dental abscesses are serious complications that occur when oral infections are left untreated. Here’s what you should know about abscessed teeth, along with some tips on prevention.
What is an Abscessed Tooth?
An abscessed tooth is the result of an infection within the root of a tooth or between a tooth and the gum. When an abscess occurs inside the mouth, it creates an inflamed pocket of tissue that generally fills with pus. This pus is the result of bacterial proliferation. Bacteria usually make their way into the root via cracks, cavities or chips within a tooth.
Usually occurring within one or several days after an infection develops, abscesses can occur in two different ways:
- Periodontal abscess: Also called a gum abscess, this is the result of infections between the gum and tooth. Many times, periodontal abscesses result from debris or food that gets trapped between teeth and gums. In severe cases, a patient can develop severe periodontal disease, when bacteria build within the bone beneath the gums.
- Periapical abscess: Also known as a tooth-related abscess, this is the result of an infection within a tooth. A periapical abscess will usually happen when a tooth’s nerve dies or begins to die. It will generally begin at the tip of the root and then ultimately spread to the surrounding bone.
Unfortunately, dental abscesses do not get better without proper dental treatment. In some cases, they can grow for months or even years without causing much pain. That said, most dental abscesses come with telltale symptoms that cause people to seek treatment right away.
Abscessed Tooth Symptoms
Pain is the most common symptom associated with a dental abscess. In most cases, patients will experience severe and continuous toothaches, along with sharp, throbbing or shooting pains within the infected area.
In certain instances, patients will also experience other symptoms, including:
- Swollen neck glands
- Pain while chewing
- Swelling, tenderness and redness of the gums
- Foul breath or bitter taste
- Swollen upper or lower jaw
- Open sore on the side of the gum that may have drainage
- Sensitivity to cold or hot
Sometimes, pain will subside as the infection destroys pulp within a tooth. This doesn’t mean the infection is gone, however. Without treatment, an abscess will spread, even if you are no longer experiencing pain. When this occurs, serious complications can follow.
Abscessed Tooth Dangers
When left untreated, dental abscesses can cause serious problems, including:
When an abscess causes damage to surrounding teeth and bone, a fistula or sinus tract can form. This is a hollow tunnel which develops through the bone and skin. It often resembles a pimple, which can leak pus within the mouth, causing a strange taste. When this happens, patients sometimes experience relief, due to a decline in pressure. Still, despite any relief, the infection can continue to spread without proper treatment.
Untreated dental abscess can sometimes cause fluid-filled cysts to develop in the jaw bone. In severe instances, surgery may be required to remove the cyst.
Even when abscesses drain without intervention, bacteria can keep spreading and infect other parts of the body. When the infection spreads through the chest, head, neck and/or the blood, this can cause a potentially deadly complication called sepsis.
Abscessed Tooth Treatment
To determine if a patient has an abscess, a dentist starts by probing an infected tooth, using a dental instrument. The dentist will also ask specific questions to determine the source and extent of your pain. He or she will also examine your gums to see if they are red or swollen. The dentist may also take an x-ray to check for decay or erosion of the bone.
If an abscess is found, the dentist will provide treatment aimed at destroying the infection, preserving the tooth and preventing complications. He or she may need to drain the abscess to eliminate the infection. Root canal therapy may then be used to remove diseased tissue and preserve the tooth’s structure and function. Once the infection is eliminated, a crown is usually placed over the tooth.
In severe cases, a dentist may have to extract a tooth and then drain the abscess through the empty socket. Sometimes, dentists also drain abscesses through incisions in the gum tissue. In many instances, dentists will prescribe antibiotics to make sure the infection does not spread within the mouth and/or body.
Preventing Dental Abscesses
Since most dental abscesses occur due to tooth decay, it’s important to maintain good dental hygiene. This means brushing twice per day and flossing at least once per day. You should also get professional cleanings and regular examinations to catch small problems before they lead to serious infections. It’s important to eat a well-balanced diet centered on fruits and vegetables. Limiting your intake of acidic and sugary food can also lower your risk of tooth decay.