A tooth abscess develops when there is an infection around the root of the tooth and pus builds up. If you think you might have an abscessed tooth, you should see your dentist promptly for treatment. Left untreated, a tooth abscess can lead to a serious infection in the jaw bone, teeth and surrounding tissues.
What causes a tooth abscess?
A tooth abscess may be caused by tooth decay. It can also occur when you have a dental injury and one of your teeth is chipped or broken. This is because an opening in the tooth's hard outer layer, or enamel, can let bacteria into the tooth. This causes an infection, which causes pus and swelling to develop.
Symptoms of a tooth abscess
If you have a tooth abscess, you may have:
- a severe toothache
- pain when chewing
- red, swollen gums or face
- a bad taste in your mouth
- sensitivity of the teeth to hot or cold food and drink
- swollen glands in the neck
- a swollen upper or lower jaw, which suggests a serious infection.
Treating a tooth abscess
A tooth abscess is treated to cure the infection and prevent complications, and to save the tooth if possible. You may be treated by your dentist or referred to an endodontist, a dentist who specialises in tooth roots.
The treatment of a tooth abscess depends on the seriousness of your condition. Treatments include:
- antibiotics to fight the infection - usually only if the infection is widespread or severe
- making a small cut to drain the abscess
- root canal treatment, which involves cleaning out the abscess and other material from the root of the tooth, and then filling and sealing it
- tooth removal (extraction), which only happens if you have a severe infection or your tooth can't be saved.
Generally, early treatment can cure the infection and save the tooth.
Preventing a tooth abscess
Practising good dental care can reduce your risk of a tooth abscess. This includes:
- brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste
- using floss or an interdental brush (a small brush for cleaning between your teeth) daily
- avoiding having too much sugary food and drinks, and limiting them to mealtimes where possible
- visiting your dentist regularly for check-ups and cleaning.
When to see a dentist
You should see a dentist regularly for check-ups. If you suspect you have a tooth abscess, or you have a toothache, see your dentist as soon as possible. A tooth abscess won't get better on its own; in fact, an untreated abscess might get worse and lead to life-threatening complications if the infection spreads to other parts of the body.
You should also see a dentist for a check-up as soon as you can if you have chipped or broken teeth.
Last reviewed: March 2017