What’s wrong with your tooth?
You wake up one morning and notice that one of your teeth is sore and while you’re drinking your coffee, it hurts. As the day goes on, the area starts to have a throbbing pain and it hurts to eat. You call your dentist and are told to come in because they are concerned it might be an abscessed tooth. What is that? Why did it happen? How can it be fixed?
A tooth abscess is caused by a bacterial infection and results in a collection of pus and inflammation to the area. It occurs when bacterium gets into a dental cavity or a chip/crack in a tooth. The two types are periodontal and periapical. Periodontal abscesses form in your gums at the side of a tooth. Periapical abscesses are more common and start at the tip of the tooth root and effect the dental pulp. Each tooth has dental pulp because it contains the blood vessels, nerves and connective tissue your teeth need. Due the its location, an abscess can result in serious complications if its left untreated. It can easily spread to your jaw, neck and other areas of your head. It can also result in sepsis, which is when the infection gets into your bloodstream and can be deadly.
The main symptom of an abscessed tooth is pain in the area that is often described as persistent, severe and throbbing. This pain can radiate to your jaw, neck or ear. Other symptoms include fever, swelling to the area, swelling to your face/cheek, sensitivity to hot/cold foods, sensitivity to biting/chewing and tender/swollen lymph nodes in the bottom part of your jaw or neck. In severe cases, the swelling can become so pronounced that it can interfere with your ability to breath or swallow. If the abscess ruptures, you might have foul-smelling and foul-tasting fluid in your mouth as the pus drains. Typically, you will also notice a decrease in your pain level. This doesn’t mean that you don’t need treatment though.
Since an abscessed tooth can lead to significant complications, it’s vital that you get treatment if you have one. The main goal of treatment is to get rid of the infection before it spreads to other areas of your body. There are several ways your dentist can do this. The first is to make a small incision and drain the fluid and pus out of the abscess. After the abscess is drained, the dentist will flush the area with saline. Sometimes, the only way to reach the abscess is through a root canal in order to drain it and remove the diseased dental pulp. Other times, the infected tooth can’t be saved and your dentist will have to pull it. Most likely, your dentist will prescribe you antibiotics in order to help your body get rid of the infection and prevent it from spreading. After any one of the treatments there a few things you should be doing at home to help the area heal. It’s helpful to gently rinse your mouth with warm salt water. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, is also beneficial. Note: If at any time you are having difficulty swallowing or breathing, you should go to the nearest emergency room. If you are having symptoms of an abscessed tooth and are unable to see a dentist right away, go to urgent care or emergency room to see if you need to start taking antibiotics while waiting to get in to the dentist.
There are several things that can increase your chances of developing an abscessed tooth. The first is having poor dental hygiene. This puts you at risk for not only an abscessed tooth, but tooth decay, gum disease and other dental issues. The second factor is eating a diet that is high in sugar because it can lead to more dental cavities. The third issue is having a dry mouth because this can cause tooth decay. Dry mouth is usually a side effect of medications or aging. The key way to prevent an abscessed tooth is to prevent any one of these risk factors and to prevent tooth decay. Some ways to do this are using fluoridated drinking water, eat healthy foods that don’t have large amounts of sugar and avoid snacking between meals. The best way to prevent tooth decay is by brushing your teeth at least twice a day, using dental floss daily, replace your toothbrush when the bristles are frayed (usually every 3 – 4 months) and visit your dentist for checkups/cleanings regularly. Another added preventive measure would be to use an antiseptic/fluoride mouth rinse. If you take any medications that cause dry mouth, talk to your doctor about what your options are to help with this.
No one wants to have a tooth abscess, but they can happen. The good news is that they can be treated and go away without any major issues as long as you seek care right away. If you have any question or concerns about an abscessed tooth, please speak with your dentist. If you would like more information, please visit the American Dental Association’s abscessed tooth page at https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/a/abscess