A dental abscess is a painful oral infection that requires immediate attention — left alone, it can destroy the tooth root and the jaw bone beneath it.
Dr. Reed Lobrot of Back of the Wasatch Family and Cosmetic Dentistry in Heber City, Utah, encourages his patients to educate themselves about their dental health so they can recognize signs of dental abscesses and other oral problems and seek medical help. Here’s what you need to know about dental abscesses and their telltale signs.
How and why does a dental abscess form?
A dental abscess is a pus pocket caused by a bacterial infection. The abscess can occur at the tip of the tooth root — a periapical abscess — or in the gums at the side of the root — a periodontal abscess.
You can develop more than one abscess, or a single abscess can travel through the bone and pop up in several spots. But each abscess is related to infection in only one tooth.
Periapical abscesses usually occur because of an untreated dental cavity; an injury that cracks the tooth, allowing bacteria to enter the sensitive inner pulp; or even prior dental work. The resulting infection creates inflammation, and pus collects around the tooth. Failing to treat an abscess can lead to serious, even life-threatening, complications.
Telltale signs of a dental abscess
A tooth abscess produces several symptoms:
- Severe, constant, throbbing toothache
- Pain that radiates to the jaw, neck, or ear
- Hot and cold sensitivity
- Pain or discomfort when chewing or biting
- Swelling in your face, cheek, or neck
- Potential difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Tender, swollen lymph nodes under your jaw or in your neck
- Foul smell in your mouth
If you also feel a sudden rush of bad-tasting, salty liquid accompanied by pain relief, you’ll know the abscess has ruptured. You still need to get medical help, as the infection remains.
Complications of a dental abscess
If the abscess doesn’t drain, the infection can spread out to your jaw and other areas of your head and neck. If the affected tooth lies near the maxillary sinus — two large spaces behind your cheeks — it can force an opening between the tooth abscess and the sinus, causing an infection in the sinus cavity. The infection may even lead to sepsis — a life-threatening infection that spreads throughout your body.
Diagnosing and treating a dental abscess
To determine if you have an abscessed tooth, Dr. Lobrot:
- Taps on your teeth: if you have an abscess that produces pain
- Takes an X-ray: the abscess shows up as a shadow around the tooth root and any area to which it’s spread
If you have an abscess, the goal is to eliminate the infection. You may need to see an endodontist, a dentist specializing in root canal treatments, or an oral surgeon if you need an extraction.
Common treatments include:
- Antibiotics: If the infection has spread into your jaw or farther into your body
- Extraction: if the tooth is too damaged to save, it has to come out
- Root canal: removal of the infected inner pulp and nerve in the canals that extend into the root tips; the canals are then sealed
- Surgery: used to drain a periodontal abscess
You can help prevent abscesses by brushing and flossing every day, limiting sugary foods and drinks, and coming in to see Dr. Lobrot twice a year for professional cleanings.
If you notice any of the telltale signs of a dental abscess, you need to come into Back of the Wasatch Family and Cosmetic Dentistry as soon as possible for an emergency dental appointment. To schedule, call us at 435-654-4500, or book online with us today.