We are here to help you with your dental emergency: Dental Abscess

A dental abscess is a common reason patients call with a dental emergency. A dental abscess is an infection that can cause severe pain. If you suspect a dental abscess, call your dentist immediately.

Sometimes you are able to pinpoint the exact tooth with the abscess. Other times, pain is referred into the jaw so it can be difficult to know exactly where it’s coming from. An abscess can be visible to you on the outside, or it can be inside at the root of the tooth.

What is a dental abscess?

A dental abscess, like other abscesses that can form in your body, is your body’s response to an infection and its attempt to contain it. When a tooth becomes infected, an abscess will form. The abscess is a pus filled pocket that is the body’s way of forming a barrier around the infection to prevent it from spreading to other teeth.


Radiographic dental abscess

Are there different types of dental abscess?

Peripheral or gingival abscesses are the ones that most patients notice and call us about. This is because they are on the gingival or gum surrounding the tooth. A peripheral abscess can be either on the cheek side or palate side of a tooth and presents itself as many patients describe, “a bubble” on the gums. Another type of a dental abscess is a periodontal abscess. This is formed when the gums have a bacterial infection or severe inflammation that has caused the gum tissue to pull away from the tooth. When this happens, it forms a pocket between the tooth and the gum that allows bacteria to enter and an abscess to form.


A third common abscess is a periapical abscess. A periapical abscess can form either because the nerve of the tooth died prematurely in the case of an accident, or because of severe decay. When a tooth is traumatized, it can die off and an infection can form. If decay is allowed to infiltrate into the pulp of the tooth either by a deep cavity, or a tooth that is cracked or broken and has not been treated, the pulp can become infected or an abscess can form. Aside from pain, a patient may not know they have this type of abscess until an x-ray is taken at one of our offices which will show the abscess on the film.


a picture of a tooth brush

What causes a dental abscess?

A dental abscess is caused by an infection in the tooth as a result of an injury, broken tooth, or decay. A cavity is the largest contributor to a dental abscess.

In most cases, a dental abscess can be avoided by maintaining a good oral hygiene routine. Brush your teeth twice a day and floss to reach places between your teeth that a toothbrush will miss. In addition to oral hygiene at home, make sure you are visiting your dentist twice a year for a regular cleaning and exam. No matter how well you clean your teeth at home, there are still hard to reach places and areas where harder plaque, called tartar, builds up. This can only be effectively removed through professional dental cleaning. Visiting our office also means that once a year you will receive x-rays to ensure there is no decay present, or catch cavities or other problems before they get worse or cause pain.


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What are the symptoms of a dental abscess?

Sometimes you can physically see a dental abscess. Other times, when the abscess cannot be seen, you will feel pain. When you have an abscess caused by infection, the pain can come on suddenly and can be intense. Because there is infection present, your face could swell on the side of the infected tooth. It can be difficult to pinpoint the tooth that is affected. Many patients have what we call referred pain, which means the pain may travel through your cheek and jaw, sometimes even up to your ear. Through special testing and a dental x-ray, one of our doctors will be able to pinpoint the tooth with the abscess so that it can be treated.


What should you do if you think you have an abscess?

The best thing to do is to call us immediately. If it is after hours, call the emergency dentist number listed for each office so that you can be seen. Many patients will go to the emergency room, but unfortunately, there is little they can do for you. It is best to start with your dentist.

Before your appointment, there are a few things you can do to try to relieve the pain. Taking an over the counter pain medication and anti inflammatory such as Ibuprofen can help relieve the pain temporarily. If there is swelling or referred pain, placing an icepack on your face can give you some comfort as well. If you can see the abscess, it may be tempting to touch it. It is best to leave it alone so your dentist can examine it.

How is an abscess treated?

Treatment for a dental abscess can vary. It can range from draining the infection, to needing more extensive treatment like a root canal or extraction. Whatever treatment your dentist decides is best, you will more than likely be placed on an antibiotic as well.

A peripheral abscess can be drained to relieve the pressure it is causing and help remove the infection. The doctor will place you on an antibiotic and monitor the area to make sure the abscess does not return. Even with a peripheral abscess, your dentist will take an x-ray to make sure there is not any decay present in the tooth.

In the same way, a periodontal abscess will be drained to relieve pain and discomfort from pressure. Though the abscess was drained, the pocket still remains and will continue to become infected if not treated further. In addition to antibiotics, your dentist will clean the infection from the pocket and smooth the root of the tooth to help prevent bacteria from attaching to it.


sinus infection by dental abscess

A periapical abscess will be first diagnosed with an x-ray. This type of abscess is at the root of your tooth and cannot be seen externally. Treatment for this type of abscess usually involves a root canal. A root canal will clean the infection and decay from the tooth and the infected pulp. The canals of the tooth will be filled with a material called gutta percha. A filling will then be placed in the tooth. Afterwards, a crown is placed on the tooth to protect it and keep it from breaking. In situations where the tooth is too infected and decayed for a root canal, it must be extracted and a dental implant should be placed.

Check out the “Best Treatment for Periodontal Disease” video


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