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What Is an Abscessed Tooth?

Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on November 23, 2019

An abscess is a pocket of pus that forms around the root of an infected tooth. 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 -- 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.

What Causes It?

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. There are two common types:

  • A periapical abscess forms at the tip of your tooth’s root.
  • A periodontal abscess affects the bone next to your tooth.

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

You’re more likely to have these kinds of issues if you don’t brush your teeth at least twice a day or if there’s a lot of sugar in your diet. Sugary foods and drinks help bacteria grow, and that can lead to cavities and other problems.

What Are the Symptoms of an Abscessed Tooth?

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:

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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. That liquid is pus.

If you have swelling in your face and a fever, or you have trouble breathing or swallowing, go to the emergency room. The infection may have spread to other parts of your body.

How Is an Abscessed Tooth Diagnosed?

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, like HIV or AIDS. Certain medications, including some cancer treatments, can also make it harder for your body to fight infections.

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.

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.

How Is an Abscessed Tooth Treated?

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.

Can an Abscessed Tooth Be Prevented?

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.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry: “Guideline on Use of Antibiotic Therapy for Pediatric Dental Procedures.”

Mayo Clinic: “Tooth abscess: Diagnosis & treatment,” “Tooth abscess: Symptoms & causes.”

American Association of Endodontists: “Abscessed Teeth.”

Edmond Hewlett, DDS, professor, associate dean for outreach and diversity, UCLA.

Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: “Periodontal Abscess: A Review.”

Rico Short, DMD, Apex Endodontics, Smyrna, GA.

American Dental Association: “Abscess (Toothache).”

Journal of the Canadian Dental Association: “How Do I Manage a Patient with Periodontal Abscess?”

NHS Choices: “Dental Abscess.”

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