When Is a Dental Abscess Life Threatening?


You wince as the first bite of your ice cream cone causes a small explosion of sensitivity in your mouth. Not another cavity, you think to yourself. But as the day and the night wear on, the pain becomes worse. You start to feel it in your jaw and your neck. You’ve had a bad cavity before, but nothing like this.

Instead of waiting for an appointment with your dentist, you head to the emergency room to see the dentist there. You’re taken in and treated right away, after which the dentist explains to you everything you never wanted (but needed to know) about dental abscesses.

What Is a Dental Abscess?

When you have a bacterial infection in your mouth, you run the risk of developing a tooth abscess. An abscess is a pocket of puss that develops somewhere on one (or several) of your teeth. When you have an abscess, you’ll notice that your teeth are very sensitive to hot or cold. You may have a severe toothache, sensitivity to pressure when biting, and a fever and swelling.

These pockets cannot go away on their own, so it is very important that you seek out medical attention to get them dealt with quickly and completely. While waiting for your appointment, if you notice a foul tasting fluid rush through your mouth, followed by pain relief, your abscess has ruptured and you should head to your dentist immediately.

How Is It Treated?

To treat an abscess, your dentist will drain the tooth of puss followed by an attempt to remove the infection. This may require a root canal (which is actually the best option, as it can save the tooth); alternatively, the tooth may have to be removed.

When Does It Become Dangerous?

If left untreated, a tooth abscess can cause a lot of damage to your health. The bacterial infection from the tooth can spread to your jaw, neck, and brain, causing a variety of complications. A rare, serious complication of an abscess is called Ludwig’s Angina, which is capable of closing your airway.

If you have a compromised immune system, you’re at a greater risk of the infection spreading from your tooth throughout your body. Because your teeth are in your head, it’s often very easy for the infection to get into your brain (which may require surgical drainage to treat).

So long as you act on the pain immediately, your dentist can help you treat an abscess and the odds decrease significantly that it will become dangerous. By waiting, however, you run the risk of the infection spreading, which will require a lot more work to treat.

How Can Abscess Be Prevented?

The good news about abscesses is that proper, regular oral hygiene can help you avoid one from developing. Remember to brush your teeth twice a day and include flossing in your regular routine. Swap out your toothbrush every three to four months (or after being sick), and make sure to visit your dentist regularly for check-ups. Sugar is also a huge contributor, so lowering the amount of sugar in your diet can be a helpful preventative measure.

As you gently rub your jaw as you leave the emergency room, you’re thankful you acted when you did. Who knows what it could have done if the infection spread. On the way home, you buy a new toothbrush and swap it with your old one, then pick up the phone and schedule a check-up appointment with your dentist. This experience was unpleasant and scary, and you’re going to do everything you can to improve your oral health.