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What Is an Abscessed Tooth?

Sometimes, a toothache is more than just a toothache. When the discomfort is severe and keeps you up at night or otherwise keeps you from going about your daily activities, it could be due to an abscessed tooth.

An abscessed tooth is a tooth that’s been infected by bacteria. As a result of the infection, pus builds up, creating a pocket known as an abscess.

Usually, the discomfort caused by an abscess is significant enough for a patient to seek treatment right away. Your dentist might be able to see you on an emergency basis, but if your dentist’s office is closed, don’t delay treatment, especially if you have a fever and swelling in the face. In that case, it’s a good idea to visit your nearest emergency department for treatment. You can follow up with your family dentist after the immediate emergency is solved.

The Types of Dental Abscesses

When people talk about dental abscesses or a tooth abscess, they’re usually referring to one of two things. An abscess that develops just beneath the root of the tooth is called a periapical abscess. Meanwhile, an abscess that forms in the gums near the tooth is called a periodontal abscess.

Causes of a Dental Abscess

A few things can lead to an abscess in a tooth. One of the most common causes of an abscess is an untreated cavity in a tooth.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, more than 90 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 64 have had a cavity. Of those people, more than a quarter have a cavity that hasn’t been treated.

When a cavity isn’t filled by a dental professional, decay can continue to occur. Eventually, the decay and bacteria can reach the root of the tooth, inflaming the pulp inside of it.

Although untreated cavities are the most common cause of an abscessed tooth, they aren’t the only cause. An injury that cracks or chips the tooth can also lead to the development of an abscess. Anything that exposes the pulp of the tooth to bacteria can lead to the formation of an abscess.

While untreated cavities and tooth decay can lead to an abscess in the root of a tooth, untreated gum and bone disease can lead to a periodontal abscess, or an abscess in the gums. When gum and bone disease progresses, the gums pull away from the teeth, creating pockets. Bacteria can get trapped in the pockets, leading to inflammation of the gum tissue and the buildup of pus.

Signs and Symptoms of an Abscessed Tooth

The most common sign of an abscessed tooth is a severe toothache. You might feel a throbbing, sharp or shooting sensation in the area around the abscess. It’s likely that the discomfort will not let up.

An abscess can also be accompanied by a few other symptoms, depending on the severity of the infection and how long it has been occurring.

Other signs to look out for include:

  • Fever
  • Swelling in the face or neck area
  • A swollen area on the gum or a visible sore on the gum
  • Bitter taste in your mouth or bad breath
  • Teeth that are sensitive to heat or cold
  • Discomfort when you chew or bite down on your teeth
  • Swollen lymph nodes

In some cases, it’s possible for the abscess to burst, which has its own set of symptoms. When an abscess bursts, you’re likely to feel a sudden relief from the discomfort. You might also feel a rush of salty-tasting, unpleasant-smelling liquid in your mouth.

How to Treat an Abscessed Tooth

It’s a good idea to see a dental professional if you suspect that you have a dental abscess, even if your toothache seems relatively minor. Treatments for an abscessed tooth can vary based on the severity of the infection, as the American Dental Association notes.

One of the first things your dental professional might do to diagnose the abscess is look inside your mouth. An intraoral camera can give you and your dentist a clear image of what is going on in your mouth and can reveal things that an X-ray often won’t pick up.

After examining the abscess, your dentist will most likely start treatment to clear up the infection. That can involve draining the abscess itself and rinsing the area with salt water. They might prescribe antibiotics to clear up any lingering bacteria and to eliminate any remaining infection.

In some cases, a dental professional might perform a root canal to thoroughly clean out the root of the tooth. During a root canal, bacteria and inflamed pulp are removed from the root of the tooth. The area is then cleaned, filled and sealed off to prevent recurring infection.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to save an abscessed tooth. If the infection is very severe, it might be that a dentist needs to pull the tooth.

How to Prevent an Abscessed Tooth

The best thing you can do to reduce your risk of developing a dental abscess is to do what you can to minimize your risk of tooth decay. Brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing can help to remove bacteria, food pieces, and other debris from the teeth, lowering the risk of infection or cavities.

Your dentist and dental hygienist can be a great source of help and guidance when it comes to keep your mouth healthy and lowering the risk of infection. Regular dental cleanings and exams will help you detect and treat any cavities early, before they have a chance to develop into an abscess. A dental professional can also give you pointers on how to brush and the dental hygiene products you can use to protect your mouth.

Whether you think you have an abscess or toothache or just want to schedule your next exam and cleaning, get in touch with the team of dental professionals at Klement Family Dental in St. Petersburg, FL., today.  In the case of a dental emergency, we are usually able to offer same-day appointments, so that you can get treatment as soon as possible.