Dental Abscess: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, Risks & More

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A study found that hospital visits for dental infections occur for one per 2,600 of the population in the country, and pediatric ER visit rates for dental abscesses are at 47%. Unfortunately, only some people know that anyone can get a dental abscess, and it’s vital to understand this painful, severe dental condition.

In this article, we’ll cover all you need to know about a dental abscess, including its signs, causes, treatments, and outcomes.

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What Is an Abscessed Tooth?

A root abscess, also called tooth abscess or abscessed tooth, is an accumulation of pus that forms inside the tooth, in the gums, or in the bone that holds the teeth. There are three types of root abscesses, namely:

Gingival Abscess. This type of tooth abscess occurs in the gums. It can result from other conditions, requiring a dentist to drain the pus to prevent further infections.

Periodontal Abscess. This is when a greater dimension of the gum and bone tissue is involved.

Periapical Abscess. This is when bacteria enter the innermost part of the tooth to form an abscess.

Typically, an abscess comes from a bacterial infection. However, it doesn’t go away on its own, so it needs urgent treatment by a dentist. An abscess damages oral tissues, and it can be painful. If left untreated, it can spread to other areas of the body, such as the jawbone and the soft tissues of the face and neck, leading to severe and life-threatening complications. Though extremely rare, a dental abscess can also reach the heart and brain.

A tooth with abscess can occur in people who smoke. Those with xerostomia or cotton mouth can also be prone to dental abscesses and poor oral hygiene. People with weakened immune systems are also at risk because fighting off germs and bacteria becomes more challenging.

How To Diagnose Dental Abscess?

A dental abscess is typically diagnosed after a physical examination of the patient’s mouth and jaw area. When a patient has the signs and symptoms, they must visit the dentist and examine the tooth and the area around it. The dentist may tap on the tooth because a tooth with a dental abscess is sensitive to touch or pressure.

A dentist may also recommend an X-ray to identify a tooth with an abscess. An X-ray can also determine if the infection has spread to the jawbone or other areas in the mouth. Should the infection spread to the areas within the neck, the patient may need a CT scan to determine the severity.

What Causes Dental Abscess?

The primary cause of an abscess in the mouth is bacteria. Bacteria can be present in plaque, a thin film of food particles, bacteria, and saliva that forms on the teeth and gums. When plaque builds up around the tooth, it can lead to dental abscess. The bacteria in the plaque then travel deep into the roots of the teeth, creating a pocket of infection.

Gingival Abscess

When a person doesn’t brush and floss regularly, plaque can stay on the teeth and the surrounding tissue, resulting in an abscess. This type of abscess happens when bacteria enter the space between the teeth and gums, causing gum pain and tenderness.

Periodontal Abscess

Unlike gingival abscess, periodontal decay is often caused by advanced gum disease, which causes the gums to pull away from the teeth, leaving deep pockets where bacteria grow. These pockets become filled with pus, causing pain and swelling. Periodontal and gingival abscesses are often confused since they both present similarly; however, the latter affects the bone and tissues that support the teeth.

Periapical Abscess

A patient with poor dental hygiene and cavities risk developing periapical decay. A deep cavity or a crack in the tooth serves as the entry point for bacteria. When the bacteria spread to the pulp, the innermost part of the tooth where the nerves and blood vessels are, it infects the tip of the tooth root and the surrounding bone.

Since bacteria are the leading cause of abscesses, the following factors increase the risk of developing one:

Poor dental care: Those who don’t have good dental habits are at risk of dental abscesses, gum diseases, and other conditions that can lead to infection.

High-sugar diet: Eating many sugary and starchy foods can increase the risk of decay and infection, leading to an abscess.

Dry mouth: Saliva helps to wash away bacteria in the mouth. A dry or cotton mouth due to certain medical conditions or medications can increase the risk of infection and abscesses.

Impacted tooth: Impacted teeth or growing incorrectly can become blocked and infected, leading to an abscess.

Trauma: Injury to the teeth, gums, or mouth can create entryways for bacteria and infection.

Radiotherapy or chemotherapy: Radiation and chemotherapy treatments can weaken the immune system and make it more difficult to fight off infection.

Symptoms of a Dental Abscess

Catching and treating dental root abscesses early can prevent further complications. As soon as the patient notices any of the following symptoms, it’s vital to make an appointment with the dentist:

Pain in the Affected Tooth or Gum

This symptom is one of the most common and usually quite severe. It can be constant or intermittent, especially when feeling the pressure of biting and chewing. In addition, it can be a throbbing pain that spreads to the jawbone, neck, and ear, which can cause discomfort and difficulty in opening the mouth, swallowing, eating, and sleeping.

Sensitivity to Cold or Hot Temperatures

Sensitivity to hot and cold food and drinks can indicate the presence of a dental root abscess in the affected area. It occurs when there is already a decrease in the tooth’s hard enamel and dentin layer. Tooth sensitivity doesn’t always mean dental root abscess, but it’s something to look for.

Redness and Swelling

Redness and swelling in the face near the affected tooth are signs of a dental root abscess. Swelling may occur inside or outside the mouth, often spreading to the jawbone, neck, and ear. When a patient spots a yellow-white spot near the affected tooth or swollen gums, it indicates a dental root abscess.

A Tender, Discolored, and Loose Tooth

A discolored tooth may result from an infection, as well as an increased amount of pressure and tightness in the affected area. If a dental root abscess is left untreated, it can lead to tooth mobility and eventual loss.

Bad Breath or an Unpleasant Taste

Bad breath and a foul, metallic taste in the mouth are signs of dental root abscesses. Patients often experience an unpleasant taste in their mouth due to this infection. Bad breath also often comes from the infected area due to bacteria and pus.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Swollen lymph nodes mean the body is fighting an infection. Swelling of glands in the neck, cheeks, and jawbone are common signs of a dental root abscess as the body attempts to fight off bacteria. This swelling can be painful and may cause tenderness in the area.


Pain from the abscess can make it difficult to sleep. A dental root abscess can be very painful and interfere with a patient’s ability to get a good night’s rest. It can also lead to fatigue during the day, which, in turn, affects overall health.


A dental root abscess can lead to a fever. A fever is another indication that the body is fighting an infection, which can be mild or very high, depending on the severity of the abscess. Generally, the patient will feel unwell and may be weaker than usual.

Causes OF Dental Abscess

Treatments for a Dental Root Abscess

The earlier the dentist identifies a dental root abscess, the easier it is to treat. Treatment will depend on the severity of the infection, but it usually includes the following:

Tooth Removal

A tooth removal is the most common action when treating a dental root abscess. The dentist will remove the infected tooth and may also clean the area around it to eliminate any remaining bacteria.

Incision and Drainage

Another standard treatment for a dental root abscess is to make an incision in the gum near the infected area and drain out any pus. The dentist can also place a small rubber drain to keep the area open so the infection can continue to drain.

Root Canal

The dentist may recommend a root canal if the infection is more severe. This procedure involves the removal of the infected pulp from the tooth’s center. A filling is then placed over the top to seal it off and prevent further infection.


Antibiotics may be prescribed to help clear up the infection. The antibiotic is usually taken orally for a few days or weeks until the infection is gone. It’s essential to strictly follow the instructions and finish all antibiotics even after symptoms have gone away.

Suppose it’s impossible to see a dentist immediately. In that case, a patient can visit a family doctor for emergency antibiotic treatment and self-care and pain management advice. Some home remedies before seeing a dentist include:

  • Avoiding too hot or cold foods and drinks
  • Avoiding sugary and acidic foods and drinks
  • Eating soft and cool foods
  • Chewing on the unaffected side of the mouth
  • Using a soft toothbrush
  • Taking painkillers
  • Rinsing warm salt water
  • Avoiding flossing and toothpicks

It’s important to note that home remedies should only be used as a temporary solution before seeing a dentist. Treating a dental abscess requires professional attention and diagnosis.

When To Seek Emergency Treatment for Dental Root Abscesses

It’s best to seek treatment for dental root abscesses once symptoms are present. However, emergency medical care is recommended if the patient has a fever and facial swelling. Having trouble breathing and swallowing also indicate that the infection has spread, which requires immediate medical attention.

Remember, a dental root abscess can lead to complications such as cysts, osteomyelitis, cavernous sinus thrombosis, Ludwig’s angina, and maxillary sinusitis. So having it checked and treated by a professional immediately is crucial.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

No, dental root abscesses don’t heal on their own. Instead, they require medical intervention to prevent further complications and spread of the infection.

The treatment of a dental root abscess depends on the cause and severity of the infection. Generally, it involves draining the pus using a needle or surgery. The dentist may also recommend tooth extraction and endodontic treatment. They may also prescribe antibiotics and painkillers to help control the infection and alleviate pain. A dentist will assess the type of treatment needed.

Yes, a root abscess can be considered an emergency. If a patient has a fever, swelling, and difficulty breathing, they must seek immediate medical attention. Tooth abscess left untreated can lead to serious, life-threatening complications.

Predicting how long tooth decay can be left untreated is impossible. In some cases, the infection can spread quickly and cause significant damage to the surrounding teeth or bone structure in as little as a few days. In other cases, the abscess can manifest in weeks or months and cause pain or discomfort.

The infection can spread beyond the affected tooth and into the jawbone or surrounding tissue if the infection leads to a dental root abscess. When this happens, the bone structures of the jaw can weaken, making it difficult to support the teeth. In addition, an infection spreading to the facial bones will need surgical treatment options to treat, as antibiotics alone will not be enough.

A patient with a dental root abscess can rely on home remedies to reduce the swelling and pain, but only professional treatment from a dentist can treat the infection successfully. Depending on the patient’s condition, a dental root abscess can need a tooth removal, root canal, incision, and draining.

If an abscess bursts in your mouth, it will release pus and relieve the pressure causing the pain. However, the bacteria will travel to new bodily systems and could cause more severe health issues, such as sepsis.

Antibiotics don’t cure dental root abscesses. However, a dentist may prescribe them to help reduce the pain and swelling caused by the infection. Additionally, antibiotics can help prevent the spread of the infection to other parts of the body.

Some signs of the abscess spreading include increased pain, a fever, swollen lymph nodes, or swelling of other body areas. Difficulty breathing or swallowing can also indicate that the infection is spreading. If any of these symptoms appear, it is crucial to seek medical attention immediately.

The symptoms of a root abscess typically begin with a sharp, throbbing pain in the gum or jawbone near the affected tooth. It may be accompanied by tenderness and swelling in the area and difficulty biting or chewing on that side of the mouth.

A dentist can extract an infected tooth on the same day if the pain is controlled. Sometimes, the dentist must wait until the pain and infection have subsided before removing the tooth. In either case, antibiotics will be prescribed to help fight the infection.

Saltwater rinses can help to reduce inflammation and pain associated with an abscess. However, it’s important to note that saltwater rinses are not a substitute for professional dental care. It is best to visit the dentist for a thorough examination and treatment plan for maximum effectiveness.

Common antibiotics for abscesses include amoxicillin, azithromycin, cefoxitin, clindamycin, metronidazole, and penicillin. The prescribed antibiotic will depend on the patient’s specific medical history and any allergies they may have.

An abscess may occur two to three days after the infection. However, knowing when it can burst is impossible since it depends on the severity of the infection and how quickly the patient seeks treatment.

Ibuprofen can help reduce tooth pain and inflammation, but the best way to treat an infection in the tooth is to seek professional medical care from a dentist.

Most cases of dental root abscess require drainage because the infection might spread without treatment.

Antibiotics for dental infections, such as amoxicillin, work relatively quickly. Following the dentist’s instructions on taking the medication should make the antibiotics take effect within a few days.


Some treat a dental infection as minor, thinking a simple painkiller can do the trick. However, a dental infection can worsen and lead to a dental abscess, posing even more health risks.

You can prevent it by prioritizing oral health and having good oral care habits. And if a dental root abscess occurs, seeing a dentist or doctor to treat your abscessed tooth immediately is crucial. A dental abscess is just as severe as any other infection.

The content on Doctor Alexa’s blog is reviewed by Advanced practice registered nurses or pharmacist and is intended for educational purposes only. This information should not be relied upon as professional medical counsel. Be sure to always consult with your physician about the dangers and benefits of any medication, treatment or procedure.

You shouldn’t wait to see the doctor for simple health needs.