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Tooth abscess

4-minute read

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
  • pus
  • red, swollen gums or face
  • a bad taste in your mouth or bad breath
  • fever
  • 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.

Illustration of cavity and abscess in a tooth.
A tooth abscess develops where there is an infection around the root of the tooth. A tooth abscess can be caused by tooth decay, dental injury or gum disease.

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.

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Last reviewed: March 2021

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