At first, you might have just felt a mild toothache. But in the last few days, maybe that tooth pain has increased significantly, and you’ve started noticing other symptoms like discomfort when sipping hot and cold drinks, or bad breath that doesn’t go away – even after brushing your teeth and flossing.
What’s going on? It could be an abscessed tooth.
Below, we explain what tooth abscesses are, why they happen, symptoms to watch for and what treatment options are available.
What is a tooth abscess?
A tooth abscess is a pocket of pus at the tip of a tooth’s root or in the tissue around it. An abscess results from an infection in the tooth itself, or an infection in the gums, bone or other supporting tissue.
What causes an abscessed tooth?
Tooth abscesses can be caused by bacterial infections resulting from untreated tooth decay, gum disease or dental injuries. An abscess develops when a bacteria causes an infection in the bone or surrounding tissues, and leads to inflammation, pressure and pain.
The main symptom of a tooth abscess is a continuous, severe toothache. Other symptoms can include:
- Pain when biting down
- Sensitivity to heat and cold
- A bitter taste in the mouth
- Unexplained bad breath
Because abscesses result from infections, there may also be symptoms directly related to the infection, like a fever. However, most of the time the infection is localized to around the tooth.
What does an abscessed tooth look like?
Tooth abscesses don’t always have visible symptoms. But in some cases, there may be swelling in the gum tissue around the infected tooth. This swelling can look like a red bump or a pimple, sometimes with blood or pus leaking from it.
If the underlying infection is more advanced, there may also be swelling in the face, cheek, neck or lymph nodes.
Can a tooth abscess go untreated?
No. A tooth abscess can’t heal on its own. Sometimes, an abscess can rupture on its own, which may partially relieve pressure and pain. But the bacterial infection that caused it will still be present. Professional dental care is always a necessary part of treating a tooth abscess.
What to do for an abscessed tooth: Treatment steps to take
1. Start with home remedies for tooth infection symptoms
While a tooth abscess needs to be treated with the help of a dentist, you’ll likely need to manage pain, infection and other symptoms until you can be seen. So, it can help to:
- Take over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and inflammation.
- Rinse your mouth with warm saltwater throughout the day to help with any swelling.
- Eat soft foods that don’t require chewing.
- Use a soft toothbrush and brush your teeth gently.
- Avoid very hot, cold or sugary drinks.
2. Get your tooth abscess treated by a dentist
Treatment for an abscess depends on how advanced the infection is. If there’s soft swelling that feels like it has fluid in it, the abscess may need to be drained. Abscess drainage involves opening a hole in the abscess to let the pus out, then rinsing the area with saltwater. An abscess with firm or no swelling may not require drainage. But in any case, abscesses generally require treatments such as:
A root canal
Infections that lead to tooth abscesses often start in the inner tissue (pulp) of a tooth. So to treat the infection, a root canal may be performed. This means removing the infected tissue, then filling and sealing the space left behind. Teeth that have a root canal often need a crown, too.
It’s still possible to get another tooth abscess after a root canal, so it’s important to practice good oral hygiene in order to prevent further infections.
In cases where an abscessed tooth is too damaged for a root canal to be an effective treatment, a dentist may recommend pulling the tooth. A pulled tooth can be replaced with a bridge, dental implant or partial denture if necessary.
In most cases, it’s possible to get rid of a tooth infection without antibiotics if it hasn’t spread beyond the abscessed tooth. But if it has or there’s a concern that it will, a dentist may prescribe antibiotics to help stop it.
Think you have a tooth abscess? Make a dental appointment
Any amount of pain, bleeding or other change in your mouth is a reason to see a dentist. Oral health conditions like tooth abscesses are best treated as soon as possible, before they become more serious, painful and expensive.
And to help avoid future issues, prioritize preventive dental care. Alongside brushing and flossing, regular dental checkups are an equally important part of keeping your teeth healthy. They’re opportunities to catch and treat issues as early as possible.