Sometimes patients ask us, “How do you get an abscess tooth?” Considering the pain a dental abscess causes, we think it is crucial for everyone to understand the causes and symptoms of an abscess. Too often, people ignore the symptoms as long as they can, which can complicate matters down the road. With prompt dental care, you can experience relief from the pain and also save the tooth.
Individualized treatment plans are essential since every tooth and patient is different, so this article isn’t a substitute for dental care. We encourage you to talk with your dentist or an endodontist if you are experiencing any concerning symptoms.
What is a Tooth Abscess?
If your dentist tells you that you have developed an abscess, that means there is a pocket of pus caused by bacteria. The bacteria typically find a way in through a cavity, fracture, missing filling, or crack in the tooth.
An abscess can develop near different parts of the tooth or gums, as outlined by Healthline:
- Periapical abscess: Located at or near the tip of the tooth’s root.
- Periodontal abscess: On the gum near the root of a tooth, and possibly also the surrounding tissue and bone.
- Gingival abscess: On the gums.
Signs of Symptoms of an Abscess
The symptoms vary depending on the severity and location of the abscess. These symptoms include the following:
- A throbbing toothache that may seem to spread from the tooth through your jaw and to your ear or neck.
- Sensitivity and pain in response to hot and cold temperatures.
- Elevated temperature or fever.
- Pain when you bite down, chew, or when there is pressure on the tooth.
- Something that looks or feels like a pimple or bubble on the gum
- Swelling in your face or neck, including the cheek.
- Swollen lymph nodes in your neck or under the jaw.
- Swelling in either the lower or upper jaw.
- An unpleasant or terrible odor or taste in the mouth.
- If the abscess ruptures, you may experience a rush of salty fluid flooding your mouth.
Be aware that an abscess won’t go away on its own. While the symptoms may come and go, if you ignore them and do not seek treatment, the source of the infection will remain. Eventually, if left untreated, you may need to have the abscessed tooth pulled. Successful treatment means relief from pain, swelling, and other symptoms, and of course, a better chance to keep the tooth!
A tooth abscess can also lead to other serious medical conditions, as explained by the Mayo Clinic. For example, if the abscess is near the sinuses, the infection can spread, resulting in sinus infection as well as the abscess. Sometimes severe infection from an abscess can cause potentially fatal sepsis, which is a severe reaction by the body in response to infection.
Causes of an Abscess
So, how do you get an abscessed tooth in the first place? A dental abscess is caused by bacteria getting inside your tooth or gums. For example, if you have a periapical abscess, then the bacteria is in the dental pulp (the inside of the tooth, where the nerve is), which would normally be protected by tooth enamel, any caps or fillings, and healthy gums. Through fractures caused by trauma, decay, or damaged fillings, the bacteria can get inside the tooth.
The primary cause could be tooth decay, an accident, pressure from chronic tooth grinding, or even damaging the tooth by biting down on very hard objects. Through the damaged area, bacteria get inside, and inflammation and infection build up.
Some risk factors include dry mouth, smoking, untreated tooth decay, accidents, and ongoing trauma to the tooth, including tooth grinding or chewing hard objects like pens.
Treatments for an Abscess
First, your dentist or endodontist will need to examine your teeth and determine whether an abscess is the cause of your symptoms. In the process, your endodontist may do a variety of diagnostic tests like taking x-rays, performing tapping or pressure tests, and checking for temperature sensitivity. Sometimes they may order a CT scan to see the extent of the infection.
Either a dentist or a specialist called an endodontist may diagnose and treat an abscess. An endodontist is a type of dentist who specializes in saving natural teeth by performing root canals and other restorative treatments. Often endodontic care is the last and best alternative to losing the tooth through an extraction.
Depending on the severity, your endodontist or dentist may treat it in one or more of the following ways:
- Drain the abscess; this isn’t enough on its own, as sometimes an abscess will spontaneously drain in your mouth
- Prescribing antibiotics
- Perform a root canal
- Extract the infected tooth
If you need a root canal, consider seeing an endodontist. While a general dentist may perform root canals, they usually are less experienced with that procedure than endodontists. According to the American Association of Endodontists, an endodontist typically completes 25 root canals each week compared to a general dentist, who typically performs around two per week.
Preventing a Dental Abscess
If you currently have any symptoms, you may wonder how to prevent a tooth from getting an abscess in the first place. The best strategy is to follow the recommendations your dentist or dental professionals offer, including:
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to gently brush your teeth twice a day
- Use toothpaste containing fluoride to strengthen your teeth
- Floss daily to prevent bacteria from building up below the gum line
- See your dentist regularly for an exam and professional cleaning
- Quit smoking if you smoke
- If a filling is lost or damaged, see your dentist to have it repaired or replaced
- Discuss any new or intensifying symptoms with your dentist and ask for a referral if your general dentist isn’t able to resolve your pain
This advice may seem familiar, but since an abscess is caused by bacteria, just like tooth decay or gum disease, the same preventative measures apply.
What to Do if You Think You May Have an Abscess
Contact your dentist or endodontist immediately if you have symptoms of a tooth abscess. The sooner you get treatment, the more likely you will keep your tooth!
If you live in the Charlotte area and are suffering from a throbbing toothache or other symptoms, we hope you consider Ballantyne Endodontics. Contact us to schedule your appointment, or talk with your general dentist to request a referral.