Tooth Abscess: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments
If you feel a persistent toothache that comes on suddenly and progressively gets worse, it may not be a typical cavity. In fact, it may be a tooth abscess: a pus-filled pocket that could lead to further bacterial infection and tooth loss if you don’t get it treated quickly.
Tooth abscesses can be worrying, but there are a number of means by which to tell whether you have an abscess and how to take care of the problem once you've identified it. Let’s take a closer look at tooth abscesses and break down everything you need to know now.
What Is a Tooth Abscess?
A tooth abscess is essentially a pocket of pus that forms because of a bacterial infection. Depending on the root cause of the abscess, it may occur in different spots throughout the tooth, as bacterial infections can take hold in different places.
For example, periapical tooth abscesses occur at the tips of tooth roots (the connective channels that lead from the tooth’s pulp down into the jaw). Periodontal tooth abscesses occur in the gums near the sides of tooth roots. Meanwhile, gingival abscesses are abscesses that take place exclusively on the gums, not necessarily the teeth.
Tooth abscesses always cause moderate to severe pain. But if left unchecked, abscesses can turn into life-threatening conditions.
What Causes a Tooth Abscess?
Tooth abscesses are always caused by bacteria, but the means by which bacteria burrows into the teeth can vary from person to person.
Untreated Tooth Decay
Tooth decay is a progressive condition that develops if you don’t properly brush and floss your teeth. Left unchecked, bacterial wear down the enamel and dentin of your teeth, eventually giving bacteria the opportunity to form an abscess.
For example, with a periapical abscess, bacteria enter the pulp of your teeth through a cavity and destroy the tissue within.
A tooth injury, like a cracked tooth from a blow to the face or a fall, can also allow bacteria the opportunity to enter the pulp of your teeth and form an abscess within.
Gingivitis is a type of progressive gum disease that leads to bacteria forming in and beneath the gums. In some cases, an abscess can form in your gums or in the teeth around infected gum tissue.
Periodontitis is a very serious condition that occurs when bacterial infections destroy gum tissue and some bone tissue that connects your teeth to your jaw. If left unchecked, it could lead to tooth loss or loose teeth, as well as tooth abscesses.
Infection from Root Canal Therapy or Tooth Fillings
An improperly performed root canal or tooth filling treatment can also lead to bacterial infection in the pulp or roots of your teeth. These infections, in turn, can lead to tooth abscesses.
What Are the Symptoms of a Tooth Abscess?
Tooth abscesses can cause a number of uncomfortable symptoms.
Toothache or Sharp Tooth Pain
The most common symptom of a tooth abscess is moderate to severe tooth pain, like a really bad toothache. In general, the abscess pain will start suddenly and progressively become worse.
Even worse, the pain can eventually radiate to your ear, neck, or jaw. The pain may become worse when you lie down or when you perform certain motions, like chewing or biting.
Bitter Taste in Mouth
You may also experience a bitter taste in your mouth. This is due to you tasting the bacteria in the abscess, which may be spreading to other teeth or gum tissue in your mouth if the abscess is not treated quickly.
Additionally, abscesses can suddenly rupture if pressure is placed on them from biting or other activities. When this occurs, the pain may fade away but you will also likely experience a sudden bad taste as pus drains out and touches your tongue.
Similarly, you may discover bad breath becomes worse when you have a tooth abscess. Most bad breath or halitosis is caused by bacterial build-up in the mouth, so it’s no surprise that bad breath accompanies abscesses in most cases. The smell will be similar to that of a rotting tooth.
Pain When Chewing
As mentioned, you may experience more intense pain when chewing if you have one or more tooth abscesses.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
The lymph nodes are located in your neck or under your jaw. These can become tender or swollen if you have a tooth abscess.
The pain in your teeth could eventually progress to the nerve endings in your head, leading to a headache or other head-related pains.
Tooth Sensitivity to Hot and Cold Temperatures
Additional tooth sensitivity may also occur, leading to intense sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures from the air or from foods or beverages.
How Do I Treat a Tooth Abscess?
Fortunately, tooth abscesses can be treated in a number of ways.
Rinse with Warm Salt Water
A warm salt water rinse can help to mitigate pain and eliminate bacteria in the abscessed area. However, it may not fully eliminate the abscess.
Your doctor or periodontist may prescribe antibiotics to progressively eliminate the bacterial infection. They may also do this to prevent the infection from spreading to your bloodstream.
Use Over-The-Counter Pain Medication
OTC pain medication like ibuprofen or aspirin can help to mitigate the worst pain of a tooth abscess through acetaminophen: a key active ingredient that is used for many types of OTC pain medicines.
Go to the Dentist
Most likely, you’ll have to go to a dentist to get your abscess fully treated. Your dentist may perform one of several procedures based on the progress of the abscess and its location.
If your abscess is primarily caused by one or more cavities, your dentist will treat these by filling them and illuminating the bacterial infections in your teeth.
A root canal may be necessary if your cavities have progressed to infect the roots of your teeth. This treatment is more invasive but will prevent the same teeth from being as vulnerable to infection in the future.
Extract Infected Teeth
If a tooth is too far gone to be saved, your dentist may extract it, removing the abscess attached to the affected tooth at the same time.
In certain cases, surgery may be required to eliminate infected gum and tooth tissue, as well as to remove any abscesses without spreading pus to other teeth or gum tissue in the mouth.
If left unchecked, hospitalization may be required to fully treat the abscess and make sure that you don’t experience any dangerous side effects.
Who Is at Risk for a Tooth Abscess?
Tooth abscesses are not incredibly common, but they may be more likely for certain individuals.
People Who Haven’t Treated a Cracked Tooth or Cavity
If you have a cavity or a cracked tooth and don’t get it treated quickly, you may be at a higher risk for a tooth abscess.
People Who Haven’t Gone to the Dentist for a Long Time
A biannual cleaning appointment with your dentist is necessary to catch cavities before they go too far and to prevent the formation of cavities in the first place. Skip your dentist appointments and you’ll be at a higher risk for tooth decay, and therefore tooth abscesses.
People with Autoimmune Disease or Receiving Chemotherapy
An autoimmune disease or chemotherapy treatment can destroy tissues in the mouth and weaken the immune system, leading to a higher likelihood of bacterial infections overall.
How Long Can a Tooth Infection Go Untreated?
It depends on the intensity of the bacterial infection. In general, a tooth infection can go untreated for several weeks before it becomes life-threatening. No one should let it get this far, however.
How Do I Know If My Tooth Infection Is Spreading?
If you start to run a fever or you feel more than one tooth becoming sore or pained, it’s likely that the infection is spreading into your bloodstream and you need medical attention immediately.
Can Your Body Fight Off a Tooth Infection?
In some cases. But it’s always a better idea to get help from a dentist and doctor, as they can prescribe antibiotics and other treatments to ensure your survival.
Ultimately, a tooth abscess can progress to a very serious condition if you don’t treat it quickly and take steps to eliminate the bacterial infection ASAP. It’s always a better strategy to avoid tooth abscesses in the first place, which you can do with high-quality dental tools and products.
Fortunately, Supersmile is ready and waiting for your order. You can check out our online store to find a wide variety of high-quality dental cleaning products, including electric toothbrushes, fluoride-infused toothpaste, floss, tongue scrapers, and more.
If you need help maintaining top-tier oral hygiene, Supersmile is the place to go to get the original smile-brightening, oral-healthy formulas your mouth deserves.