A dental abscess is a collection of pus that can form inside the teeth, in the gums, or in the bone that holds the teeth in place. It’s caused by a bacterial infection.
There are two types of dental abscess, a gum abscess (also known as a periodontal abscess) and a tooth abscess (also known as a periapical abscess).
It’s important to get help as soon as possible, because abscesses don’t go away on their own. They can sometimes spread to other parts of the body and make you ill.
Your mouth is full of bacteria, which form a sticky film on your teeth called plaque.
A gum abscess is usually caused by an infection between the tooth and gum. This may occur as a result of food getting trapped or, in cases of severe periodontal disease, when bacteria build up under the gum and in the bone.
A tooth abscess appears at the tip of the tooth’s root and occurs when a tooth’s nerve is dead or dying.
The following can increase your chances of developing a dental abscess:
- Poor oral hygiene – plaque can build-up on your teeth if you don’t floss and brush your teeth regularly
- Consuming lots of sugary or starchy food and drink – these can encourage the growth of bacteria in plaque and may lead to decay that can result in an abscess
- An injury or previous surgery to your teeth or gums – bacteria can get into any damaged parts of the teeth or gums
- Having a weakened immune system – this includes people with certain underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, and those having treatment, including steroid or chemotherapy.
Symptoms of an abscess in your tooth or gum may include:
- an intense, throbbing pain in the affected tooth or gum that may come on suddenly and gets gradually worse
- pain that spreads to your ear, jaw and neck on the same side as the affected tooth or gum
- pain that’s worse when lying down, which may disturb your sleep
- redness and swelling in your face
- a tender, discoloured and/or loose tooth
- shiny, red and swollen gums
- sensitivity to hot or cold food and drink
- Bad breath and/or an unpleasant taste in your mouth
If the infection spreads, you may also develop a high temperature (fever) and feel generally unwell. In severe cases, you may find it hard to fully open your mouth and have difficulty swallowing or breathing.
You should see a dentist as soon as possible if you think you have a dental abscess. Avoid visiting your GP, as there is little they can do to help.
Dental abscesses are treated by removing the source of the infection and draining away the pus.
Depending on the location of the abscess and how severe the infection is, possible treatments include:
- Root canal treatment– a procedure to remove the abscess from the root of an affected tooth before filling and sealing it.
- removing the affected tooth (extraction) – this may be necessary if root canal treatment isn’t possible
- incision and drainage – where a small cut (incision) is made in the gum to drain the abscess (this is usually only a temporary solution and further treatment may be needed)