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Is a dental abscess a medical emergency?


Is a dental abscess an emergency?

The short answer is yes. It’s one of the most common reasons people visit an emergency dentist or their local A&E department. A dental abscess is definitely something that you need to visit a dentist for rather than your GP.

It’s vital to seek dental care if you have a tooth abscess, as without prompt treatment, it can have severe repercussions on both your oral and general health.

Of course, recognising the signs of infection and dental abscess is crucial for preventing serious, long-term oral health problems. So, continue reading to learn more about the causes of a dental abscess, the symptoms to be aware of, and the ways your dentist can address and restore your smile when dealing with a tooth abscess.


Firstly. what is a dental abscess?

A dental abscess refers to a pocket of pus caused by bacterial infection. It is in fact a by product of the body’s immune system as it fights off the invading bacteria. 

As the immune system fights off the infection it leaves behind a trail of dead bacteria, dead cells and other debris. As it accumulates, the matter breaks down to form pus. 

An abscess can occur in different areas near the tooth and for differing reasons, with the two most common being positioned on the tooth and gum respectively. 


Tooth abscess

This type of abscess is also referred to as periapical abscess and occurs at the tip of a tooth’s root that contains nerves, blood vessels and connective tissue. A chipped or broken tooth, severe tooth decay, deep fillings or trauma can all cause a tooth abscess. Bacteria can enter the tooth through these damaged areas, spreading infection that results in an abscess.  


Gum abscess 

Also known as a periodontal abscess, this type of infection develops in the gums surrounding a tooth and is typically associated with advanced gum disease or periodontitis. As with a tooth abscess, it’s essential to treat a gum abscess as quickly as possible.


Why is a dental abscess dangerous?

Aside from being painful, a dental abscess is dangerous because it’s an infection. Without treatment, the infection could spread, leading to eventual complications like sepsisa potentially life-threatening condition. 

Moreover, a wisdom tooth or any other tooth with an abscess can lead to complications in adjacent teeth and the jaw, increasing the risk of tooth loss. Therefore, addressing tooth pain promptly and identifying symptoms of a tooth abscess early is crucial. 


What are the signs and symptoms of a dental abscess?

An abscessed tooth displays distinct signs and symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Recognising these indicators is crucial for prompt dental care. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the signs and symptoms associated with a dental abscess:

  • Severe, persistent toothache: Pain can be sharp, shooting, or throbbing, often spreading out to the jawbone, neck, or ear.

  • Sensitivity to temperatures: Affected teeth may become extremely sensitive to hot and cold foods, causing discomfort during eating or drinking.

  • Pressure sensitivity: Biting or chewing may become agonising, with the affected tooth or surrounding area hurting when pressure is applied.

  • Swelling and redness: Inflammation may occur in the face or cheek, potentially impeding swallowing or breathing in severe cases. The gums around the infected tooth may also appear swollen and red.

  • Fever: Elevated body temperature indicates the body is fighting an infection. If accompanied by dental pain, it suggests a possible abscess or another dental infection.

  • Foul taste and smell: When the abscess leaks or bursts, a foul taste may occur, and the breath can become unpleasant. While this may temporarily relieve pain, the infection can persist and will often still require treatment.

  • Swollen lymph nodes: Small lumps of tissue containing white blood cells, found under the jaw or in the neck, may become tender and swollen during infection.

  • Difficulty opening the mouth: In advanced stages, swelling and pain can make it challenging to fully open the mouth, affecting activities like speaking or eating.

  • Breathing or swallowing difficulties: Although less common, an untreated abscess can lead to swelling that hinders breathing or swallowing.

When to seek emergency care

If you have any signs or symptoms of a tooth abscess see your dentist promptly. If you have a fever and facial swelling or trouble breathing and swallowing, and you can’t reach your dentist, go to your local A&E department immediately. These latter symptoms could indicate that the infection has spread to your jaw, throat or neck, or even, other areas of your body.


What about treatment options?  

Treatment options for a dental abscess may vary depending on the severity of the condition. However, in most cases, dentists use a combination of the treatments below:

Draining the abscess: The dentist makes a small incision in the abscess to release the pus, offering relief from pain.

Antibiotics: If the infection is confined to the abscessed area, antibiotics may not be necessary. However, if it has spread to neighbouring teeth or other regions, our dentist may prescribe antibiotics to halt its progress.

Root canal treatment: This procedure aims to eliminate the infection and preserve the tooth. The dentist will drill into the tooth, remove the affected central tissue, and drain the abscess. Subsequently, they will fill and seal the pulp chamber and root canals and may cover the tooth with a dental crown for added protection.

Tooth extraction: In cases where saving the tooth is not feasible, our dentist may need to extract the tooth and then address the abscess.

So, to recap

  • A dental abscess is an emergency

  • Please contact your dentist and not your GP

  • Without prompt treatment, it can lead to more significant oral and medical health conditions.

  • If you have a fever and/or facial swelling or difficulty breathing or swallowing, Visit your A&E department immediately.

If you suspect you may have a dental abscess, don’t delay. Call the friendly team at Hermitage Dental Practice we’ll try our best to fit you in for same-day treatment. Call us on 01530 510533.

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