Dental Abscesses 101

[updated August 2019]

If you have a severe toothache, your cheek is swelling, or your teeth are unusually sensitive, it could be a symptom of a dental abscess. Left untreated, an abscessed tooth can turn into a serious, life-threatening condition.

What is a Dental Abscess?

A dental abscess is an infection of the mouth, face, jaw or throat that begins as a tooth infection. An abscess can occur due to a bacterial infection in your mouth, which may develop in the pulp of one of your teeth, within your gums, or even inside your jawbone. A tooth infection usually happens after the tooth has been damaged by a mouth injury or a cavity, but it can also be a complication of gum disease.

What are the Different Types of Dental Abscesses?

The three most common types are:

  • Periapical abscess. This is an abscess at the tip of a tooth’s root.
  • Periodontal abscess. This is an abscess on the gum next to the root of a tooth. It might also spread to the surrounding tissue and bone.
  • Gingival abscess. This is an abscess on the gums.

Signs and Symptoms of a Dental Abscess

The most common signs and symptoms of a dental abscess include

  • difficulties opening the mouth
  • swallowing difficulties
  • insomnia
  • fever
  • a foul taste in the mouth
  • pain in the affected area when biting or when touching the affected area
  • sensitivity to cold or hot food and liquids
  • a generally unwell feeling
  • sensitivity to the pressure of biting or chewing
  • tender, swollen lymph nodes under your jaw or in your neck

When you have an abscess, pus surrounds the infected tissue and causes swelling. The abscess then becomes highly sensitive or even painful to the touch. If you leave a dental abscess untreated, you will continue to experience pain in the infected area of your mouth, and you may even have difficulty breathing properly.

Risk Factors

The following factors are the largest risk factors for developing a tooth abscess.

  • Poor dental hygiene
  • A diet high in sugar
  • Dry mouth

Preventing Tooth Abscesses

The best way to prevent a tooth abscess is to avoid tooth decay. Take good care of your teeth and do the following to reduce your risk of developing an abscess.

  • Eat healthy food and limit sugary items and in-between meal snacks
  • Use dental floss or an interdental cleaner to clean between your teeth on a daily basis
  • Use fluoridated drinking water
  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste
  • Replace your toothbrush every 3-4 months or whenever the bristles become frayed
  • Visit your dentist for regular checkups and professional teeth cleanings
  • Consider using an antiseptic or a fluoride mouth rinse to add an extra layer of protection against tooth decay

Treatments for Dental Abscesses

If you think you have a dental abscess it’s important to schedule an appointment with your dentist as soon as possible. Dental abscesses are easily diagnosed by a qualified dentist.

Depending on the type and severity of the abscess, treatment options include

  • draining the abscess
  • a root canal procedure with a crown to cap and strengthen the tooth
  • tooth extraction if the tooth is too damaged and can’t be saved
  • anti-biotics to clear up an infection that has spread beyond the abscess
  • removal of a foreign object (if this is the cause of your abscess)

If you can’t get in to see your dentist right away you can take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or visit a family doctor or ER. While a doctor can not treat an abscess, they can prescribe medication and advise on self-care and pain management until you are able to see your dentist.

If you suspect that you might have developed a dental abscess, call your dentist right away to set up an appointment to have it treated.


About the Author – Dr. Thuy Nguyen, DDS

Dr. Thuy Nguyen DDS in Tukwila, WA holds a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and received a Doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of Washington. In 2011, she also completed the Progressive Orthodontic Program. She is known for her fine work and a friendly and caring attitude. Her enthusiasm for dentistry is contagious, as she designs and improves smile after smile. Dr. Nguyen is bilingual in English and Vietnamese. She maintains memberships to the Seattle King County Dental Association, The Washington State Dental Association, and The American Dental Association.

References

Nordqvist, Christian. What’s to know about dental abscesses? Medical News Today, December 4, 2017.  https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/170136.php

Tooth abscess. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tooth-abscess/symptoms-causes/syc-20350901

Dental Abscess. emedicinehealth. https://www.emedicinehealth.com/dental_abscess/article_em.htm

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