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Is an Abscessed Tooth Dangerous? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

by Melanie Peterson

A dental abscess is a condition that needs to be taken seriously. While your first instinct might be to simply stick it out and endure the pain, praying that it goes away in a day or two, that’s the opposite of what you should do. You should contact your dentist as soon as possible if you suspect you have an abscessed tooth. As a matter of fact, early intervention to stop the further spreading of the infection is of utmost importance. 

So, is an abscessed tooth dangerous? The answer depends on how you go about it.

This article is meant to inform you about dental abscesses and provide guidance in case you ever encounter one. A tooth abscess can easily be mistaken for other similar conditions, such as TMJ, so reading up on it is a must to ensure the most efficient response on your part. 

What Is a Dental Abscess? How Serious Is It?

A dental abscess is a pocket of pus that can form in your teeth or gums as a result of a bacterial infection. Although unpleasant, pus is typically nothing to worry about. However, the infection can spread to other areas and cause complications. A tooth abscess is usually moderately painful, though it can get quite unbearable in some cases, especially if it expands.

There are three main types of tooth abscesses:

  • Periapical, which happen at the tip of the root;
  • Periodontal, which affect the area of gums around the root;
  • Gingival, which are abscesses of the gums. 

Common Causes of a Tooth Abscess

A tooth abscess occurs when there’s an infection and when bacteria manage to get inside using one of the following ways:

  • Cavities. When you intake a lot of sugar and don’t practice proper dental hygiene, cavities can appear. A tooth becomes abscessed when bacteria travel down the cavity to reach the pulp of your tooth.
  • Broken or chipped tooth. In a similar manner, bacteria can infect your gums or teeth if you have a broken tooth or have root issues.
  • Gum disease or injury. In case of gingivitis or injury to the gums, you could be at risk of developing an infection. Be careful not to let gingivitis progress further and turn into a much more serious problem — periodontitis. 

Symptoms of an Abscessed Tooth

If more than a few of these symptoms apply to your case, you’re most likely dealing with a dental abscess:

  • The tooth is sensitive to the touch or temperature changes 
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Pain in the jaw, neck, ear, and head
  • Swelling in the cheek
  • Swelling and redness of the gums
  • Bad breath, unpleasant taste in the mouth
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever and fatigue

In some cases, these signs will be mild, involving only a minor toothache and sensitivity. On the other hand, if the infection gets worse, you could experience all of these symptoms. Whatever the case may be, paying an emergency visit to your dentist is inevitable.

Dental Abscess and TMJ

As we mentioned before, dental abscesses are often confused with TMJ pain. TMJ, which is short for temporomandibular joint, is a joint that connects your lower jaw to your skull. This abbreviation is also used to describe the disorder that affects the TMJ. Other names include TMD or TMJD. 

TMJ is a disorder that can have many causes — structural jaw problems, arthritis, injury to the jaw or head, etc. However, it presents itself similarly to a tooth abscess, giving the person suffering from it throbbing pain in the area, difficulty chewing, and “locked” jaws (limited mobility). These two conditions are closely related. Not only does a tooth abscess have similar symptoms to TMJ but it can also facilitate it by putting pressure on the jaw. 

Still, a tooth abscess could have a number of other symptoms that indicate urgency, such as fever, nausea, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes.

Dangers of an Untreated Tooth Abscess

Even though we’ve already emphasized the dangers of ignoring an abscessed tooth, it doesn’t hurt to do so again. What does hurt, though, is a widespread infection and the sky-high hospital bill that you’ll have to cover if you don’t take care of the abscess in time. Still, such cases are rare. Moreover, you can easily prevent that from happening by going to the dentist right away.

Here are the consequences of an untreated dental abscess:

  • Tooth loss. In case the abscess weakened the tooth beyond the possibility of repair, your dentist might need to remove it entirely. You might be able to get a dental implant if you’re concerned about the aesthetics of your smile. 
  • Bone infection. The infection could potentially spread to surrounding bone structures, the maxilla and the mandible, weakening them significantly. In some extreme cases, they might even need to be removed in order to contain the infection. 
  • Sinus and soft tissue infection. Being that the roots of your upper teeth reach as far as your sinuses, they could also be at risk of infection. The same applies to the soft tissue in your mouth. Infection of these areas can be highly dangerous as it can cause difficulty breathing, among other things.
  • Septicemia. If the infection somehow enters your bloodstream, the bacteria and their toxins will spread throughout your body, putting your life in danger. 
  • Brain abscess. This equally life-threatening condition occurs when the infection spreads using one of the means listed above and reaches the brain. 

Treatment and Prevention

After checking out your X-ray scan, your dentist will determine the extent of the infection and recommend the appropriate treatment. 

Typically, the dentist will try to remove the abscess. They’ll make a small incision, drain the pus, and clean the area thoroughly. For those that are curious, here’s a Youtube video showing the procedure.

Other treatment methods include the extraction of the abscessed tooth, root canal procedure, antibiotics, and over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen.

When it comes to tooth abscess prevention, regular checkups, a healthy diet low in sugar, and proper dental hygiene are your strongest weapons.

The Takeaway

All in all, if you don’t prevent the spread of infection in time, an abscessed tooth can be dangerous, even life-threatening. On the other hand, if you get the right treatment, the abscess will heal quickly and the symptoms will go away in just a few days. While we understand that the fear of the dentist can be overwhelming, we strongly encourage you to visit your dentist as soon as you notice the first symptoms.

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