What is a tooth abscess?
A tooth abscess develops when there is an infection around a 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 jawbone, teeth and surrounding tissues.
What are the symptoms of a tooth abscess?
If you have a tooth abscess, you may have:
- a severe toothache
- red, swollen gums or face
- a bad taste in your mouth or bad breath
- 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
- difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth
- nausea, vomiting
What causes a tooth abscess?
A tooth abscess may be caused by severe tooth decay. It can also occur due to a dental injury such as a chipped or broken tooth. This is because an opening in the tooth's hard outer layer, or enamel, can let bacteria into the tooth, causing infection.
Another cause of a tooth abscess is severe gum disease around a tooth.
How is a tooth abscess treated?
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 cannot be saved
Generally, early treatment can cure the infection and save the tooth.
Can a tooth abscess be prevented?
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
- cutting down on sugary foods and drinks
- not smoking
When should I 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 will not 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.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: March 2021