Can a toothache ever become so serious that it’s deadly? Some bacteria in our bodies are necessary and helpful, but others can cause harmful infections that lead to illness. If left untreated, the cavity-causing bacteria in our mouths is the kind that can be dangerous and even fatal.
When bacteria from the food we eat gets stuck in our teeth and gums, the result can be an infected tooth. Just like any other cuts in our body, the bacteria can attack the tooth until it’s no longer healthy. Certain bacterial infections in the mouth are called tooth abscesses and can lead to life-threatening complications.
An abscess in a tooth is caused by untreated tooth decay, periodontal disease, or a crack in a tooth. An abscess is a pocket of pus in the gum line, root, or surrounding bone of the teeth. Dentists fix an abscess by draining it so it doesn’t spread into the bloodstream. If this happens, it’s called “bacterenemia.” In healthy individuals, their immune system will likely destroy the unfamiliar bacteria. But, in older adults or individuals with compromised health, the bacteria in the blood may not be destroyed.
Bacteria in the blood can move around the body, spreading infection and leading to serious complications. It can travel to places such as the lungs, causing pneumonia, or to the brain, causing meningitis.
If you suspect you have an abscess in your mouth or if your dentist finds one during your next exam, don’t panic. Here are the three most common types of oral abscesses and how they’re treated.
Gingival or Gum Abscess
“Gingival” means that the abscess is in the gum tissue of the mouth. When this is the case, your dentist will need to remove or drain the infection. If it has spread, a root canal or tooth extraction may be necessary.
Periodontal disease is when the gums and bone, or “periodontal tissues” that hold our teeth in place are infected. A periodontal abscess is the 3rd most frequent dental emergency. It’s most common in individuals with untreated periodontal disease. Your dentist will conduct a variety of exams to determine what course of treatment best suits your case. It may include a deep cleaning to remove any plaque that is stuck beneath the gum line.
Periapical disease happens as a result of your body fighting back against bad bacteria. When this occurs, tissue retreats away from the source of the infection. It creates a space for our body’s defense system to fight right up next to the infection. A periapical abscess forms when the infection spreads and creates a collection of pus at the root of a tooth. Dentists will often drain a periapical abscess and prescribe antibiotics to help eliminate the infection.
Can a Tooth Abscess be Fatal?
While it’s rare to die from complications with a tooth abscess, it can happen. Every year there are cases of a tooth infection leading to death. A 9-year study found that a total of 61,439 hospitalizations in the U.S. were primarily attributed to periapical abscesses. Of those hospitalizations, 66 patients died in the hospital.
If left untreated, the infection from a tooth abscess can spread throughout the body. The infection can enter your bloodstream or bones and make its way to vital organs. An abscessed tooth can cause sepsis, pneumonia and Ludwig’s angina, which is an infection under the tongue that causes swelling and difficulty breathing.
An abscessed tooth can have several symptoms, including:
- Throbbing pain near a tooth or your gums
- Pain that is worse when you lie down
- Pain when chewing or biting
- Pain that radiates through your neck, jaw or ears
- Swollen gums
- Tooth sensitivity
- A foul taste in your mouth
When an abscess ruptures, you will almost immediately feel better. You may also have a bad taste in your mouth from the draining pus.
All abscesses should be treated by a dentist, even if they have already ruptured. A dentist will examine the area and clean it out to ensure the infection doesn’t spread.
Our oral health is so connected to our overall health that it can come down to life or death. It’s never too late to start taking care of your teeth. If you don’t have one yet, use this tool to find a dentist in your area and get on track for a healthier mouth and body. Your dentist cares about more than just your teeth. They want to help you develop healthy habits to improve your overall wellness.
Looking for more tips to keep your teeth and gums healthy? Checkout these common tooth brushing mistakes and how to correct them.