What Is an Abscessed Tooth?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO and Minesh Khatri, MD on January 16, 2024
7 min read

An abscessed tooth is one that is infected in or around the root, creating a pocket of pus. Anyone, from children to the elderly, can get one.

If you have one, it won’t get better on its own. You need treatment from a dentist or endodontist, which is a specialist who can help save your tooth. If you don’t treat it, the infection can spread beyond your jaw to your neck, head, or other body parts.

Abscessed teeth are divided into types, based on the location of the problem.

Periapical abscess

This type of abscess forms when bacteria invade the pulp of your tooth's root. The pocket of pus is around your tooth's root, and the infection can go all the way to the tip of the root and to nearby tissues.

Periodontal abscess

This type starts in your gums and often looks like a pimple on your gum.

Your tooth is hard on the outside, but the inside is filled with a pulp made up of nerves, connective tissue, and blood vessels. Sometimes, it gets infected. Most often that results from:

If you don’t treat the infection, it can kill the pulp and lead to an abscess.

You can get more than one abscess. One abscess can travel through the bone and show up in several spots. But each is related to only one tooth.

Certain lifestyle factors make you more likely to get an abscessed tooth. They include:

  • Not getting regular dental care. When you don't have regular teeth cleanings, tartar, and plaque buildup, inflaming your gums.
  • Poor dental habits. If you don't brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss, you're more likely to have problems such as tooth decay and gum disease.
  • Too much sugar in your diet. If you eat a lot of sweets and drink sugary drinks, you're more likely to get cavities.
  • Dry mouth. You can get dry mouth from certain medicines or just as a result of aging. It increases your risk of tooth decay.

A tooth abscess starts with the breakdown of enamel, the coating that protects your teeth.

That allows bacteria to work through the next layer of protection and into the pulp of your tooth.

A local infection builds up.

From there, the infection can spread into your jaw or other parts of your body.

In some cases, the area around the tooth hurts, but not always. If it does, it’s usually a sharp, throbbing pain, especially when you put pressure on your tooth. It might also spread to your jaw or other parts of your face on the side that’s affected.

You might also notice:

  • Swelling
  • Gum redness
  • Bad taste
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
  • Puffy gums
  • A bad odor when you chew with that tooth
  • A rush of fluid in your mouth that's salty, bad-tasting, or foul-smelling, followed by an easing of your pain. That means your abscess has ruptured.
  • The tooth feels loose

Sometimes, an abscess causes a pimple-like bump on your gum. If you press it and liquid oozes out, it’s a sure bet you have an abscessed tooth and the liquid is pus.

Symptoms of tooth infection spreading to your body

The infection from a dental abscess can spread to other parts of your body if it's not treated early on. Signs of that include:

  • Fever
  • Swelling in your face, neck, or jaw
  • Trouble breathing

If you have swelling in your face and a fever, or you have trouble breathing or swallowing, go to the emergency room.

An abscessed tooth won’t go away on its own. See your dentist right away if you have signs of one. It’s important to treat it because there’s a chance it could spread to your jaw or other parts of your head or neck. This is especially true if your immune system is weak because of a health condition such as AIDS or if you are being treated for certain conditions such as cancer or an organ transplant.

To find out if you have an abscessed tooth, your dentist probably will:

  • Tap on your teeth. If you have an abscess, it’ll hurt when they touch the affected tooth.
  • Take an X-ray. This can tell your dentist if you have an abscess and if it has spread to other parts of your mouth.
  • Do a CT scan if the dentist suspects the infection has spread to other areas.

If your dentist can’t diagnose the abscess on their own, they’ll probably send you to an endodontist, who’s specially trained to work on abscessed teeth. They can tell for sure if you have an abscess and treat it if you do.

The goal is to get rid of the infection. To do that, the endodontist may try:

  • Antibiotics. If the infection has spread past the abscess site to your jaw or farther into your body, you’ll probably get them. However, they won’t cure the abscess.
  • Extraction. If the endodontist can’t save the tooth, it will have to come out.
  • Root canal. You may have heard about this common way to treat an abscess. It’s the best way to save your tooth. The endodontist drills into your tooth and cleans the pulp from inside it and the root canals that go down into your gum. They fill and seal the empty spaces. You’ll either get a filling or a crown. The restored tooth will look and work just like your other teeth.
  • Surgery. You may need it to drain a periodontal abscess.

Keep in mind, if an abscess ruptures, your pain will ease but you'll still need treatment from a dentist or endodontist.

How to get rid of tooth abscess without going to the dentist

Your pain might ease, but that doesn't mean your abscessed tooth is better. That might happen because the abscess has ruptured, or because the pulp of your tooth has died and the nerves are no longer sending signals. An abscess won't get better on its own, and you can't fix it with home remedies. If you don't see a dentist, the infection will not clear up and will spread. Avoiding the dentist could lead to serious health complications.

Will the abscess go away with antibiotics?

You may take antibiotics to help your body fight the infection, but medicine alone won't cure an abscessed tooth. The tooth itself is the source of the infection, and it has to be dealt with.

If you don't get treatment, a tooth abscess can lead to more serious problems.

The infection may spread to other parts of your neck and head. If the abscessed tooth is near your sinus, it can create a hole between your tooth and your sinus. If that happens, the infection might spread to your sinuses, open spaces in your face behind your cheeks, and under your eyes.

The worst-case scenario is that infection will spread throughout your body. That's called sepsis, and it can be fatal. 

Take these simple steps to keep your teeth and gums healthy:

  • Get regular dental checkups and teeth cleanings.
  • Brush your teeth twice daily for 2 minutes with a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss daily to clean hard-to-reach spots between your teeth and gums.
  • Make a dentist appointment as soon as possible if you have a loose or cracked tooth.
  • Limit sugary foods and drinks. Sweets and sodas lead to cavities, which can cause an abscess.
  • Cut down on snacks between meals.

A tooth abscess is a pocket of infection in or around the root of your tooth. You might have pain and swollen gums, and the tooth may be sensitive to heat, cold, or pressure. You might see something that looks like a pimple on your gum. An abscess is a serious issue that needs attention from a dentist right away.

How do I know if my tooth is abscessed?

Pain is your main clue. It might throb, or it might be a shooting pain. Your tooth might be sensitive to different temperatures. If your gums are swollen around the sore tooth, that's another sign you might have an abscess.

What gets rid of a tooth abscess?

You'll need a dentist to drain the abscess and then decide whether your tooth can be saved. If you take antibiotics, that will only help your body fight the infection. It won't get rid of the source, which is the abscessed tooth.

How can I treat my tooth abscess at home?

The first step is to call your dentist, explain why you think you have an abscess, and set up an appointment. You can't cure an abscessed tooth on your own. To manage your pain until your appointment, try these steps:

  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Ibuprofen may be the most effective for an abscess, but ask your doctor which one is safest for you.
  • Avoid very hot or very cold drinks. They can make your pain worse.
  • Choose soft foods and chew on the other side of your mouth.
  • Use a toothbrush with soft bristles, and don't floss around the affected tooth.
  • Rinse your mouth with warm water.
  • Ask your doctor if it's OK to apply an over-the-counter toothache remedy that contains benzocaine.

Is a tooth abscess an emergency?

If you think you have an abscessed tooth, set up a dental appointment right away. If you have a fever, or swelling of your face, neck, or jaw, that's a sign that the abscess is spreading -- a serious complication. If you can't reach your dentist right away, go to an emergency room. If you have trouble breathing, call 911 and get emergency help.