What Is an Abscess?

When bacteria infiltrate the innermost portions of your teeth, an abscess can result. You typically don’t spontaneously experience an abscess — instead, the infection is the result of tooth decay. When your protective tooth enamel and material starts to break down over time, bacteria can start to sneak in and infect the pulp of your tooth, which is the center portion.

How Does Infection Happen?

Inflammation is your body’s natural response to foreign invaders, like the bacteria that cause infection in your body. When your tooth becomes infected, your body starts to produce white blood cells to fight off the infection. This combines with bacteria and dead tissue that causes the tooth to start to swell. The swelling puts pressure on your tissues and nerves, which can cause pain and a toothache. This is where abscesses can be tricky — if the tissue within your tooth starts to die, your toothache may go away, but you will still be left with the infection.

Symptoms of Abscessed Teeth

An abscess can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms, some of which you may easily try to pass off as a cold or flu. These include:

  • Drainage from your tooth or gums
  • Fever
  • Strange-smelling breath
  • General feeling of malaise — including fatigue and uneasiness
  • Swelling in your upper and/or lower jaw
  • Swollen neck glands
  • Toothache
  • Tooth sensitivity, especially to hot or cold
  • Unusual or bitter taste in your mouth

Abscessed Teeth and Health Risks

An abscessed tooth means more than a temporary inconvenience from tooth pain — it can lead to a serious health condition if left untreated.

“An abscessed tooth is an infection in your body, and as with any infection, it can spread throughout your body, affecting your heart, vital organs and any damaged areas, such as a bad knee,” says Mark Sayeg, DDS, FAGD, a dentist practicing in Sandy Springs, Ga.

If you suspect you are experiencing an abscessed tooth, seek emergency medical treatment or see your dentist as soon as possible. Failing to treat the infection can lead to tooth loss, soft tissue infection, jaw infection, pneumonia, a brain abscess or sepsis, a potentially deadly infection. All of this stems from your teeth and the infection.

Prevention and Treatment of Abscessed Teeth

An abscess represents a slow development over time. If you fail to get that cavity filled or tooth checked out, this can lead to an abscess. Instead of ignoring your tooth pain, you should have your dentist view your tooth as soon as possible. Getting regular cleanings and x-rays also can help your dentist visualize your teeth and get an overall picture of your dental health.

If your dentist does diagnose you with an abscess, the treatment options depend upon the abscess’ severity. For example, antibiotics may be prescribed to eradicate the infection if it is limited to only one tooth. However, if the abscess-causing infection has spread to nearby teeth, your gums or your jaw, this may necessitate a root canal, where your dentist removes the diseased portion of your tooth to drain the material inside the tooth. A crown is then placed over the tooth to prevent future infection. However, in some instances, the tooth must be pulled in order to relieve the infection. You may still need to take antibiotics to kill off the bacteria present in your mouth.