What is an abscess?

An abscess, also known as a tooth infection, is usually a complication of a cavity. Pulpitis may develop, which is an inflammation of the pulp (the part of the tooth that contains blood vessels and sensitive nerve fibres). If left untreated, the pulp dies and becomes infected, leading to the formation of a dental abscess.

The infection results in a collection of pus (dead tissues, live and dead bacteria, and white blood cells) and swelling of tissues within the tooth. This can cause severe toothache.

Eventually the nerve in the root of the tooth may die and the pain will stop for a time. However, the infection remains active and continues to spread and destroy tissue, leading to more problems.

As the infection worsens, a visible boil may appear. If this boil ruptures, it releases a foul smell and taste into the mouth.

What are the symptoms of an abscess?

The symptoms of an abscess include a continuous and throbbing toothache, pain when chewing and sensitivity to hot and cold. You may also experience a bitter taste in the mouth and have foul smelling breath. In some cases you may get swollen glands or a swollen area of the jaw. Your gums may be swollen and red, and biting or closing the mouth fully increases the pain.

What should I do if I have an abscess?

Visit your dentist immediately. Antibiotics may be given to fight the infection. Root canal treatment may be recommended to preserve the tooth. During this procedure, the pulp is removed along with any decaying parts of the tooth. The roots and surface of the tooth remain in place. The cavity that is created is filled and repaired, and a crown may be placed over the tooth. Preservation of the tooth is often possible.

In some cases, extraction of the affected tooth or excision (surgical drainage) of the abscess may be required. Before you see the dentist, gargling with warm salt water may help. Do not place aspirin directly over the tooth as this will increase irritation of the tissue.

How can I prevent an abscess?

Avoid cavities. If you do get a cavity, visit your dentist. Likewise, if you have any sort of toothache, visit your dentist immediately. Ignoring an abscess can lead to serious complications, such as an infection of the jawbone.

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