A tooth infection or “tooth abscess” is a collection of pus and bacteria that forms inside the tooth or gum.
Without proper treatment, tooth infections can spread to other areas of the body, and this can lead to serious and potentially life threatening complications. To reduce the risk of complications, a person should seek treatment for a tooth infection as early as possible.
In this article, we outline what happens when a tooth infection spreads. We also provide information on how to treat and prevent tooth infections.
The mouth is full of bacteria from foods, saliva, and plaque. Sometimes, these bacteria can enter into a tooth or below the gumline, resulting in a tooth infection or abscess. An abscess is the medical term for a pocket of pus and bacteria that forms within the body’s tissues.
In most cases, tooth infections are easily treatable. However, a person who delays treatment is at risk of developing the following complications:
- Osteomyelitis: An infection of the bone surrounding the tooth.
- Cavernous sinus thrombosis: An infection of the blood vessels within the sinuses.
- Cellulitis: An infection of the skin and fat directly beneath the skin.
- Parapharyngeal abscess: An abscess at the back of the mouth.
- Sepsis: A serious medical condition in which the immune system severely overreacts to an infection in the blood.
Without treatment, a tooth infection can spread to the face and neck. Severe infections may even reach more distant parts of the body. In some cases, they may become systemic, affecting multiple tissues and systems throughout the body.
It is rare for a tooth infection to spread to other parts of the body. However, if this does happen, the consequences can be severe.
The following symptoms could indicate that a tooth infection has spread to another part of the body. A person who has a suspected tooth infection and develops any of these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention:
A person should see their dentist at the first sign of a tooth infection. Early treatment will help prevent the infection from spreading into other tissues.
A tooth infection that has spread is a medical emergency. Such infections can quickly become widespread and severe. Systemic infections can be life threatening.
A person should contact a dentist for an emergency appointment as soon as possible. If there are no dentists available, a person should visit the emergency department of their nearest hospital.
A dentist or doctor will provide treatments to target the infection and stop it from spreading further.
The type of treatment that a person receives for a tooth infection will depend on several factors, including:
- the initial location of the abscess
- whether, and to what extent, the infection has spread
- the extent of the immune system’s reaction to the infection
Possible treatments for a tooth infection include those below.
Root canal treatment
Root canal treatment (RCT) may be necessary to treat an abscess deep inside the tooth. The procedure involves drilling into the tooth to remove the accumulated pus and bacteria at the root.
The dentist will then fill the space with a rubber-like material called gutta-percha. Once the tooth has healed, they will restore it with a crown or a permanent filling to prevent further infections.
Sometimes, RCT is not enough to get rid of a tooth infection. In such cases, a dentist may recommend a procedure called an apicoectomy, or a root end resection. This procedure involves opening up the gums to remove the end of the tooth root along with any infected tissue.
A dentist may also prescribe antibiotics to reduce the infection and stop it from spreading.
If the infection has already spread, a person may need to extend the course of their antibiotic treatment. Alternatively, they may need to switch to a different type of antibiotic.
If the infection is severe, a person may need to stay in the hospital and receive antibiotics through an intravenous drip.
In certain cases, it may be necessary to drain pus directly from the site of the infection.
For example, drainage may be necessary to remove pus from a parapharyngeal abscess at the back of the mouth.
Treatment of sepsis
Sepsis is a serious medical condition that occurs when the immune system severely overreacts to an infection in the blood. Untreated sepsis can lead to septic shock. With septic shock, a person’s blood pressure drops dangerously low, which can lead to organ failure and even death.
People who have sepsis will need treatment from an intensive care unit. Such treatment typically involves intravenous antibiotics and fluids.
Other treatments may be necessary to support the body’s organs and limit the damage resulting from the infection. Such treatments may include dialysis or surgery.
The following tips should help reduce a person’s chances of developing a tooth infection:
- brushing the teeth twice a day using a toothpaste that contains fluoride
- avoiding rinsing the mouth or drinking anything immediately after brushing the teeth
- using floss or interdental brushes at least once a day
- limiting the intake of sugary foods and drinks
- visiting the dentist regularly
If a tooth infection does occur, a person should see their dentist or doctor immediately.
Most tooth infections are easily treatable. However, if a person delays treatment, a tooth infection can spread to other parts of the body. Once the infection has spread, it can quickly lead to severe and potentially life threatening complications.
A person who suspects that their tooth infection has spread should, therefore, seek immediate medical treatment.
The most effective way to prevent tooth infections is to maintain good oral hygiene. People can do this by limiting their sugar intake, brushing their teeth twice a day, and visiting the dentist regularly.