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Tooth Infection


Tooth infections, also referred to as tooth abscesses, are collections of pus and/or bacteria that build up within the dental pulp of a tooth or teeth. There are several levels of infection ranging from mild to severe, but almost always, intense, throbbing pain is present.

Tooth infections generally involve the nerves at the center of the tooth that feed out through the end of the root. When the root dies, the infection has an opportunity to spread to the surrounding tissues, gums, bones and teeth.

Trauma is the main cause of tooth infections. The trauma can be attributed to things such as cavities, broken or chipped teeth or losing a tooth. Either way, the second the tooth is damaged, microorganisms are readily waiting to enter and attack the area. These microorganisms battle the nerves inside your tooth. If the nerves die, infections will certainly begin. If the infection goes untreated, it can become a tooth abscess, cause illness such as sweating, fever and vomiting, and can even shut off the airway passage.

Types of Tooth Infections

There are three types of tooth infections, each differing by its unique characteristics. One type of tooth infection occurs inside the tooth (the living pulp tissue). Tooth decay is usually why this type of infection occurs. Sadly, there is no type of medicine, such as antibiotics, to fight off this infection. Like the other two, it is extremely painful.

Another type of tooth infection occurs when the infection is inside the bone around the end of the tooth. This is generally where you would see a tooth abscess. Unlike with the first type of tooth infection mentioned, white blood cells and antibodies are able to reach this area of the body and can help fight the infection. If the person is relatively healthy, his or her immune system may also be able to help fight the infection with the assistance of medication. However, many times this type of tooth infection wins, as it feeds off the dead surrounding tissue and is fed bacteria continuously.

The last type of tooth infection occurs inside the gums. Many times, if a patient has this type of infection, also known as a gum infection, he or she is referred to a periodontist. These can also be abscess and they can also be fought by our own white blood cells and antibodies, as well as medication such as antibiotics.

Tooth Infection Symptoms

The symptoms of tooth infections are very similar to those of tooth abscess, including:

  • Toothache, ranging from mild to severe, and infrequent to often
  • Pain when chewing
  • Sensitivity to hot and cold
  • Foul taste in ones mouth
  • Swollen lymph nodes (neck glands located under the jaw)
  • Feeling of nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Bad breath or halitosis
  • Redness of the gums
  • Inflammation of the gums
  • Open, draining sore on gums

The toothache may eventually go away because the root has finally died. However, that does not mean the infection has died. In fact, the infection is likely thriving and active as it continues to spread and destroy uninfected tissue. Many times people find themselves thinking the problem goes away with the pain, but the opposite is true almost always, especially with tooth infections.

Tooth Infection Causes

What causes tooth infections? The answer is quite simple: trauma. Trauma can occur a number of ways including cavities, chipped, cracked, or broken teeth, injured teeth, and other invading infectious diseases such as gum disease and gingivitis. The problem with our teeth is that white blood cells and antibodies do not have any room inside them. When trauma occurs to the tooth, teeth have a very hard time recovering on their own. Not even medicine, such as antibiotics, are able to reach inside the tooth. This allows enamel to break down quicker, which makes the tooth more susceptible to infections.

Tooth Infection Treatment

Your dentist will want to do everything possible to save your tooth. Treatment includes eliminating the infection and preventing further complications. If the tooth is an abscess it will need to be drained. Learn more about this treatment in the Abscessed Tooth article. Another way to treat the tooth is to extract it. Tooth extraction gets rid of the entire infection, and if needed, drainage can occur through the empty socket. If the infection is in the gums, a small incision can be made to let the infection drain. To replace an extracted tooth, your dentist may recommend a dental implant. Dental implants replace missing or damaged teeth. They are made of artificial materials, and unlike dental bridges, they do not need the support of other teeth to be functional. Antibiotics can be prescribed to help fight the infection, and to relieve pain dentists recommend warm salt-water rinses and over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen.

Rinsing your mouth with warm salt water (1/2 tsp of salt to 1 cup water) and repeating each hour or as often as you need relief is one way to treat yourself at home. After treatment, you should not chew on the affected side of your mouth for a minimum of 2 days. Always follow your dentist’s instructions after receiving treatment for a tooth infection. Liquid or soft diets are typically required for 1 to 2 days, or until the pain subsides. With treatment and proper follow-up care, the outlook is good.

Preventing Tooth Infections

Preventing tooth infections can be as easy as improving your oral health and oral hygiene habits. Brushing and flossing twice a day or after each meal is ideal, but not always done. If you cannot get to a toothbrush after eating, try rinsing your mouth with water, chewing sugar-free gum, or using a toothpick or floss pick until you can get to a toothbrush. Although these things will not stop plaque from building, they can slow it down and reduce the risk of developing a tooth infection. Additional preventive steps you can take include the following:

  • Eat healthy snacks in between meals, especially crunchy foods such as apples
  • Avoid or reduce your sugar consumption
  • Do not let a baby fall asleep with a bottle of fluid other than water
  • Use fluoride mouthwash, toothpaste, tablets or liquid supplements, especially if recommended by your dentist
  • Learn proper brushing and flossing techniques and practice them everyday
  • Use a soft-bristled brush to remove plaque from your teeth and gum line

Regular check-ups are a great way to detect problems early or before they turn into abscess teeth. Your dentist may be able to fill a cavity or give you a good cleaning during your visits. Either way, your dentist will be able to spot problems, conditions and diseases during their early stages. Another key prevention tip if you are injured or trauma occurs to your teeth is to immediately seek dental care. Bacteria can invade your teeth as quickly as within minutes of being exposed to uninfected area.

Talking to Your Dentist

Here are some suggestive questions to ask your dentist about a tooth infection:

  • Which type of tooth infection do I have?
  • Which treatment options are available to me?
  • Will I need to take time off work for treatment?
  • How often will I need to schedule follow-up visits?
  • What can I expect during follow-up visits?
  • How often should I be seeing you each year?
  • Which toothpaste and mouthwash do you recommend most for me?
    What are some of the costs associated with treating my tooth infection?
  • What can I do to prevent future tooth infections and oral problems?

Learn more about an abscessed tooth ?

Page updated September 2012



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