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What Is a Tooth Abscess, and How Do You Spot It?

From gum disease to cavities, bacteria can wreak all kinds of havoc in your mouth. And if they ever reach the root of a tooth, they can cause a painful infection. 

A tooth abscess is a pocket of pus that forms after a tooth is infected. Dental abscesses can be extremely painful, because they cause the gums to become inflamed and swollen, putting extra pressure on the already sensitive tooth. 

There are several types of tooth abscesses, and a wide range of symptoms to watch for. Here’s how you can identify and treat a dental abscess, as well as prevent them from forming in the future. 

Types of Dental Abscesses

A dental abscess can form in three different parts of the mouth:

  1. At the tip of the tooth’s root (periapical abscess)
  2. Next to the tooth root, on the gums (periodontal abscess)
  3. Anywhere else on the gums (gingival abscess)

What Causes a Tooth Abscess to Form?

Different types of dental issues cause different types of tooth abscesses. For instance, periapical abscesses occur when harmful bacteria are able to reach the pulp of your tooth, typically through a cavity or crack. 

A periodontal abscess is most commonly caused by an infection of the gums called periodontal disease, but can also form after a mouth injury. Lastly, a gingival abscess can form if something gets stuck in the gums, like the hull of a piece of popcorn. 

12 Symptoms of an Abscessed Tooth

Some of the most obvious signs of a tooth abscess include tooth pain and a blister on the gums. A constant fever is another symptom, and is a serious sign that the infection is spreading, so it should never be ignored. But you may also experience a combination of several other symptoms when your tooth is infected. 

Contact your emergency dentist as soon as you notice any of the following signs of an abscessed tooth:

  1. Fever
  2. Severe, constant toothache that may spread to ear, jaw, or neck
  3. Facial, cheek, or neck swelling and redness
  4. Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  5. Swollen and inflamed gums
  6. Painful chewing or biting
  7. Pain that worsens when lying down
  8. A sudden rush of foul-tasting liquid in the mouth (a sign that the abscess ruptured)
  9. Tender or swollen neck or jaw lymph nodes
  10. Discolored or loose teeth
  11. Tooth Sensitivity
  12. Bad breath

How Are Dental Abscesses Treated?

There are several ways to treat a dental abscess and eliminate infection. Treatment will depend on the severity of the case. If the abscess is caused by periodontal disease, the gum infection will also need to be treated. Here are some of the typical treatments for dental abscesses.

Draining the Abscess

Dental abscesses usually need to be drained to clear the infection. Your dentist will make a small incision in the abscess to remove the pus. Then they will use a saline solution to clean the area. Sometimes this is enough to treat the abscess.  

Root Canal

Severe abscesses caused by cavities or cracked teeth may require a root canal procedure to save the tooth. After draining the abscess, the dentist makes a small hole in the tooth and removes the infected pulp inside. Then they fill the root canal and place a crown over the tooth. Although root canals have a bad reputation, they are actually no more painful than getting a cavity filled. 

Tooth Extraction

In extreme cases where the tooth cannot be saved, it will need to be extracted. If the infection has reached this point, then the dental abscess cannot be drained until after the tooth has been removed, otherwise it will not be able to heal properly. 


Your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to help fight the infection, especially if there is a chance the infection could spread to other parts of the mouth beyond the abscess.  

What Happens If You Don’t Treat a Tooth Abscess?

If a tooth abscess is left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of your body. It could even become life-threatening if it reaches your brain. It’s crucial that you seek treatment for a dental abscess immediately to prevent the infection from spreading. You also need to see the dentist immediately if the abscess ruptures so they can clean the area and eliminate the infection. 

How to Prevent Dental Abscesses

The best way to prevent a tooth abscess is to take good care of your dental health. Here’s an example of a good oral care routine:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time
  • Use fluoride toothpaste to strengthen tooth enamel
  • Floss teeth daily to prevent gum disease
  • Eat a healthy diet that limits sugar and snacks
  • Stay hydrated to prevent dry mouth
  • Visit the dentist twice a year for checkups

Emergency Dentist in Gilbert, Arizona

Whether it has ruptured or not, a dental abscess is always an emergency. If you suspect you have an abscessed tooth, contact Lifetime Family Dental immediately. We provide emergency dental care in our convenient Gilbert offices. If you have any tooth abscess symptoms, call us at 480-558-4331 to schedule an urgent appointment. 

Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (3/3/2023). Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash