How to get rid of a tooth abscess? What happens if a dental infection spreads to the body?

Peter March

Written by Peter March DDS, Richard Hattaway DDS, Nichole McKenna DDS

A tooth abscess is a serious condition. Complications include not only loss of the tooth but also of general health. Targeting this condition should never be put off till a later date.

We have broken down the most important facts on the subject. Read the following guide to learn about what a tooth infection is, its causes, as well as treatment options available.

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What is a tooth abscess?

Periapical dental X-ray

Picture by Authority Dental under CC 2.0 license

A dental abscess, sometimes called an infection, is a pocket of pus somewhere around the tooth. It can lead to moderate or even severe pain. You may feel discomfort in different parts of your mouth, head, and neck. Many patients report pain in their ear, especially if the abscess has formed in or around a molar tooth.

There are 3 regions where the cyst may appear:

  • A periapical abscess is on the tip of the root.
  • A periodontal abscess is in the gum around the root.
  • A gingival abscess forms on the gums surrounding the tooth.

Causes of tooth infection

When bacteria begins to attack blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue of a tooth, an abscess forms. This area is known as the pulp.

The infection usually begins as a cavity that is left untreated. The bacteria can also enter through a chip or crack in the tooth.

The most common causes include: - poor oral hygiene, - neglecting to visit a dentist for cleanings, - smoking, - a diet high in sugar, - injury, - a foreign object getting stuck between the teeth, - gum disease, - dry mouth, and - other medical conditions.

Tooth infection symptoms

Limited dental exam

Picture by Authority Dental under CC 2.0 license

The first sign you’ll likely notice is a toothache. This is your body letting you know that something is wrong. But this isn’t always the case.

Richard Hattaway

Richard Hattaway, DDS

The absence of pain does not always mean the absence of disease. More often than now, a dental abscess will be painless until it very quickly presents as severe pain.

The following tooth abscess symptoms often follow: - sensitivity to hot and cold foods and drinks, - painful chewing and biting, - halitosis, - fever, - swelling in the face or neck, - bad-tasting liquid in your mouth, - difficulty in swallowing or even breathing,

Many patients also report tender lymph nodes, pain radiating to the neck, jaw, or ear, swollen gums, and discolored or loose teeth.

Tooth abscess stages

The development of a tooth infection can be split up into 6 stages. Those include:

  • white spotting,
  • enamel decay,
  • decay of dentin,
  • infection of the pulp,
  • formation of the abscess,and
  • loss of the tooth.

It’s hard to say how long each step might take, as this depends on many factors including oral hygiene, smoking and drinking habits, as well as whether or not the patient targets the issue at all.

Obviously, the sooner you act on it, the less damage a tooth abscess will cause. Each step may be completely void of symptoms such as pain. This is why regular check ups are so important. A dentist will be able to catch signs much earlier than you.

Symptoms of a tooth infection spreading to the body

The tooth abscess will not go away on its own. Even if the cyst bursts, you still need treatment. A very dangerous situation takes place when the infection begins spreading to the rest of the body.

Symptoms to look for include:

  • a high fever,
  • rapid heart rate,
  • vomiting,
  • confusion, and
  • dehydration.

In more severe cases you may also experience less frequent and darker urine, lightheadedness, diarrhea, a headache, fatigue, chills, and an increased breathing rate.

All these could point to sepsis. This is a life-threatening infection. Search for an emergency dentist and make an appointment as soon as possible.

Home remedies for dental abscess

There are a few things you can do at home before visiting a dentist. If you are experiencing pain, take an OTC painkiller with adherence to instructions on the packaging. In the case that you have any inflammation, consider taking ibuprofen. Rinse your mouth with saltwater solution.

The most important thing, though, is to restrain from bursting the cyst yourself. This is incredibly dangerous. By applying pressure incorrectly you can make the pocket burst towards the inside of your body.

How to treat an abscessed tooth?

Tooth extraction

Picture by Authority Dental under CC 2.0 license

The aim of professional treatment is to clean up the infection and relieve pain. Diagnosis is usually conducted with a visual exam and dental X-rays. This way the dentist knows how severe the spread of the infection is and which treatment to go with.

The solution may differ from one patient to another. Some might only need one of the following procedures, while others may require a combination.

The first step is to remove the pus from its pocket. A cut will be made to release the liquid. This relieves pain significantly. The area will then be cleaned with saline solution.

If the dental abscess was caused by a foreign object, the obvious solution is to remove it. This could be, for instance, a popcorn hull, a toothbrush bristle, or a tooth fragment. The dentist will then rinse the area with saline solution.

The infected pulp may have to be removed. The dentist will drill a hole and use tiny instruments to get rid of the contaminated material. He or she will then seal the chamber to prevent further infection. Depending on the severity of the dental abscess, a crown may be needed to restore the tooth after the RCT.

Tooth extraction Sometimes the position of the abscess is very unfortunate. The dentist may have to extract the tooth in order to drain the pus. A removal might also be necessary if the tooth is damaged beyond repair. Either way, root canal treatment is preferred, if possible.

In cases where the patient’s immune system is weakened or if the infection has spread considerably, an antibiotics treatment may be prescribed. Nonetheless, the source of infection will have to be eliminated, usually through RCT.

If the tooth was extracted, antibiotics are usually not necessary, as the infection is removed along with it.

FAQ

Yes. Tooth infections can not only lead to loss of dentition, but they can also spread to the rest of your body. If your blood becomes contaminated, you may be at risk of meningitis or sepsis. Both are life-threatening conditions.

There is no time frame here. A dental abscess is something you should treat right away. If you note any symptoms, don’t wait, as it can become more dangerous and cause more damage.

Nonetheless, abscesses can show up in as little as 3 months and be very severe or they could be festering for years with no signs. The best thing to do is to stay up-to-date with preventive X-rays and exams.

The most important thing is to focus on hygiene. Brush and floss your teeth at least twice a day, ideally after every meal. Don’t skip out on professional cleanings and regular checkups at the dentist to catch any problems early on. Also, remember to change out your toothbrush every 3-4 months.

Secondly, incorporate fluoride into your diet and routine. It helps remineralize your teeth and keeps them strong. Drink fluoridated water and use toothpaste that contains this mineral. A lot of mouthrinses have fluoride content as well.

In terms of do’s, maintain a healthy diet. Lots of fruits and vegetables help prevent your teeth from becoming fragile. When it comes to don’ts, sugary snacks and drinks are your enemy. Avoid any tobacco products as well.

Dentists and doctors commonly prescribe antibiotics of the penicillin class, such as penicillin or amoxicillin. A course of such medication may not be enough, however. A medical professional should drain the pus from the pocket to remove dead tissue from your mouth.

No. Do not touch your abscess yourself. It may relieve pain if done correctly, but you run a huge risk of introducing the bacteria into your bloodstream. The pocket may not burst towards the outside. This can have tragic consequences.

References

  1. Dental Abscess - NCBI
  2. Dental Caries (Tooth Decay) - CDC