Poor dental health is widespread, with 91% of adults aged 20 to 64 experiencing dental caries. Unfortunately, untreated or severe tooth decay can lead to more severe conditions like dental abscesses.
A dental abscess isn’t just a painful inconvenience; it can be a medical emergency. Hospital admissions for dental infections occurred at a rate of 1 per 2,600 people in the United States.
Understanding when a dental abscess qualifies as an emergency is crucial for prompt and effective treatment.
What is a Dental Abscess?
A dental abscess is a pocket filled with pus that forms in different parts of a tooth due to a bacterial infection. It can occur in the gums at the side of a tooth root (periodontal abscess) or the tip of the root (periapical abscess).
The primary cause is often untreated dental decay, gum disease, or a cracked tooth due to trauma. These issues allow bacteria to enter the innermost part of the tooth, the pulp, leading to an infection.
Symptoms of a Dental Abscess
Understanding the symptoms of a dental abscess can help you identify the condition and seek prompt treatment. The symptoms of a dental abscess can vary in intensity, but they typically include:
- Constant, severe, throbbing toothache
- Sensitivity to biting or chewing pressure
- Sensitivity to cold and hot temperatures
- Tender, swollen lymph nodes under your jaw or in your neck
- Swelling in your face or cheek
- Sudden rush of foul-tasting and smelling fluid in your mouth and pain relief if the abscess ruptures
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing (in severe cases)
Why is a Dental Abscess Considered an Emergency?
A dental abscess is a serious condition that requires immediate treatment to avoid even more severe complications. Some of the reasons a dental abscess is considered an emergency include:
- Risk of spreading: If left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of your body, including the jaw and neck. The abscess can also spread to the brain, specifically abscesses in the upper molars and surrounding gums. In extreme cases, it can lead to sepsis, which is a life-threatening condition.
- Severe pain: The pain associated with a dental abscess can be excruciating, making it difficult for individuals to eat, sleep, or go about their daily activities.
- Potential for tooth loss: If an abscess is not treated in time, it can lead to extraction of the affected tooth. The abscess damages tooth and bone by producing acidic byproducts and inflammatory cytokines. This can escalate to osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection resulting in tooth loss due to weakened periodontal ligaments and alveolar bone.
- Compromised overall health: Oral health is closely linked to overall health. An untreated dental abscess can lead to more significant systemic health issues, especially in individuals with compromised immune systems or pre-existing health conditions like diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
What Should You Do if You Suspect a Dental Abscess?
If you believe you have a dental abscess, acting quickly is crucial. The longer you wait, the more the infection can spread and the more complicated (and potentially more expensive) the treatment can become. Try the following at-home remedies to alleviate abscess symptoms until you can visit an emergency dentist:
- Avoid hot foods and drinks: These can exacerbate the pain and potentially accelerate the spread of the infection.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers: OTC pain relievers and anti-inflammatories can provide temporary relief; however, they are not a long-term solution. It’s essential to see a dentist as soon as possible.
- Rinse with a salt water solution: Mix one teaspoon of table salt with one cup of warm water. Rinse and gargle with this mixture for 30 seconds, several times daily, to eliminate bacteria and food particles to alleviate some pain and cleanse the area.
Once you notice symptoms, see a dentist as soon as possible. A dentist can properly diagnose the issue, drain the abscess if necessary, and prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.
Don’t Wait, Act Now to Address a Dental Abscess
A dental abscess is a serious condition that can have significant implications for your oral and overall health. If you are experiencing symptoms of a dental abscess, treat it as an emergency and seek professional dental care immediately.