What Is an Abscessed Tooth?

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.

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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.

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.

How Is an Abscessed Tooth Diagnosed?

You might notice:

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.

How Is an Abscessed Tooth Treated?

While pain and swelling are common signs, you may not have any symptoms. That means the pus pocket has found somewhere to drain.

If you don’t have symptoms, your dentist could spot an abscess through X-rays at a routine exam. He may tap on your tooth to see if it hurts.

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

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Can an Abscessed Tooth Be Prevented?

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. He fills and seals 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 It 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 two 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 Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on November 03, 2017

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?”

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