Are you worried you might have a tooth abscess? Perhaps someone you know has an abscess in their mouth and you want to know what exactly that means, and how you can avoid a similar tooth infection. In this article we'll explain what causes gum boils, how to spot the symptoms of a tooth abscess, and what dental abscess treatment usually involves.
We'll also give you some tips for avoiding an abscessed tooth in the first place. It's worth following this advice to reduce your chances of a painful infection and uncomfortable treatment.
If you're in real pain and don't have time to read this whole article, visit toothpick.com to find an emergency dentist in your area.
Table of contents
- 1 What is a tooth abscess?
- 2 Types of dental abscess
- 3 What causes an abscessed tooth?
- 4 Tooth abscess symptoms
- 5 Tooth abscess treatment
- 5.1 Gum abscess drainage
- 5.2 Root canal treatment for abscessed teeth
- 5.3 Gum abscess complications leading to extraction
- 5.4 Medication for dental abscess treatment
- 5.5 How much does it cost to treat an abscess in the mouth?
- 5.6 Dental insurance cover
- 5.7 Questions to ask your dentist
- 5.8 Gum abscess home treatment
- 6 How to prevent tooth and gum abscesses
- 7 Tooth abscess in children
- 8 FAQs
What is a tooth abscess?
An abscess is a pocket of pus that accumulates when a bacterial infection breaks down tissue. Abscesses can form in many different parts of the body, including in the mouth. They are a natural defence mechanism, the aim being to block the infection from reaching other areas. The resulting build-up of pus is usually very painful, so a dental abscess often results in toothache.
When it comes to mouth abscesses, both the gums and the teeth themselves are at risk. An abscess in the mouth can erode the periodontal structure (which supports the teeth) and the jaw bone, causing irreparable damage. In some cases, the affected tooth has to be extracted.
By understanding tooth abscess symptoms and seeking professional treatment as soon as you become concerned, you can reduce the chances of further infection and complications or other oral health problems.
Types of dental abscess
There are three main types of oral abscess: gingival, periodontal and periapical. The distinguishing factor for each one is the location where the abscess forms.
Gum abscess (Gingival abscess)
A gingival abscess, or gum abscess, forms on the surface of the tissue at the gum line of the teeth (gingiva). This is often a result of external damage to the gum, for example from food entering the gumline or penetration from a toothpick.
If caught early, an abscess on the gum is relatively easy to treat and recover from. If left untreated, however, a gum boil can progress to a periodontal abscess and cause greater oral damage.
A periodontal abscess occurs deeper into the gum pockets. Since there is nowhere for pus to drain, the abscess spreads into the surrounding tissue and jaw bone.
These begin in the soft tooth pulp, usually as a result of decay deep inside the tooth. Once tooth decay has eroded the protective enamel and dentin of the tooth, bacteria can invade the nerves and tooth pulp (a condition known as pulpitis).
Pus from this mouth infection may appear at the gum line of the tooth, but more commonly it ends up in surrounding tissue which becomes inflamed.
Wisdom tooth abscess
A common type of periapical abscess is a wisdom tooth abscesses, since the very back teeth are harder to clean so are more susceptible to infection. In addition, it's harder for your dentist to spot cavities on these teeth and treat them early on.
What causes an abscessed tooth?
Your mouth naturally contains bacteria, and when not cleaned well this forms plaque on your teeth and gums. Teeth infections develop when the acid produced by plaque starts to decay the teeth or gums.
The main tooth abscess cause is untreated tooth decay that's left to spread. Other possible reasons for infection include:
- Gum disease (gingivitis)
- A cracked tooth
- Complications from dental surgery such as implants, root canal treatment and extractions
- Rough tooth brushing or flossing
- Food stuck between teeth and gums
People with poor dental hygiene are more susceptible to dental abscesses due to an increased build-up of plaque. Any injury or surgery to teeth and gums can increase the chances of infection as delicate parts of the mouth are exposed to bacteria.
In addition, people with a weakened immune system are at greater risk of developing a dental infection. The immune system is affected by certain underlying heath conditions, such as diabetes. Some medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, also reduce a patient's natural immunity.
While none of these things will automatically lead to a tooth or gum abscess, they are all factors which increase the risk of infection.
Tooth abscess symptoms
The first signs of tooth infection are likely to be strong pain and difficulty eating. Specifically, dental abscess symptoms include:
- Continuous, throbbing pain
- Pain when the tooth is tapped
- Increased pain when eating hot or cold foods/drinks
- Greater discomfort when biting teeth together or chewing food
- A foul, bitter taste in the mouth from draining pus
- A bad smell in the mouth from the infection
- Swelling and reddening of the face or gums
- Bleeding from the gums
- A tooth that is loose and/or discoloured
- A pea-sized bump inside the mouth
More serious symptoms which may indicate dental abscess complications include:
- Swollen lymph glands
- Pain spreading to the jaw, ear or neck on the same side as the infected tooth
- Difficulty opening your mouth (trismus)
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing (dysphagia)
- General fatigue
These tooth infection symptoms usually come on quite suddenly. Within a few hours you may find yourself in excruciating pain.
Note that patients can experience an initial toothache which then fades away. It's easy to assume that the problem is fixed, but this is not the case. Your tooth pulp cannot heal itself, but once the nerve is destroyed you won't experience any pain. It's only once the infection has spread through the dead tooth into the surrounding gums and tissue that symptoms will re-appear. At this point, far more extensive damage has been done.
To avoid tooth abscess complications, you should visit a dentist as soon as you notice any tooth infection symptoms, even if they disappear by themselves.
Acute vs. chronic abscess
The above symptoms are all characteristic of what is called an acute abscess. This spreads fast and usually causes great discomfort and pain for the patient.
A chronic abscess, on the other hand, grows slowly and may cause no pain whatsoever. The patient is therefore unaware of the presence of the abscess, and only a dental x-ray will be able to identify it. This is usually a periapical abscess, spreading gradually through the tooth root and into the surrounding tissue.
Eventually, the pus may create a tunnel through the bone and tissue, known as a ‘fistula' or ‘sinus tract'. This allows the pus to drain, and looks like a pimple inside your mouth. If you see or feel something like this in your mouth, even if you haven't experienced any other tooth abscess symptoms, you should consult your dentist. If pus starts to drain through the fistula, you'll know about it from the foul taste.
What does an abscessed tooth look like?
If you think you may have an abscess, you might be searching for tooth abscess pictures so you can check your symptoms. Keep in mind that not all abscesses are externally visible, so don't be put off visiting your dentist just because you can't see any outward signs of infection.
While some abscesses may appear as a small lump inside the mouth (as in the image above), they may also result in much greater swelling either in the mouth or on the face. If you have a swollen face and oral pain, a tooth abscess may be the cause.
Tooth abscess pictures
If you're curious to know what an abscess in the mouth can look like, below you'll find some tooth and gum abscess pictures. These show the internal and external symptoms of a tooth infection that's resulted in an abscess.
|External symptoms||Internal symptoms|
|Facial swelling||Swelling around a molar|
|Swollen lymph nodes||Hole in the roof of the mouth|
|Discoloured tooth||Child gum abscess|
Remember, even if your mouth doesn't look exactly like this, you should still visit a dentist if you're worried.
Tooth abscess treatment
How do you get rid of an abscessed tooth? Dental abscess pain can be intense and prevent the patient from eating properly. In this case it may be appropriate to seek emergency treatment. Even if the pain is bearable, you should visit a dentist as soon as possible to avoid further damage and complications.
If you're having difficulty breathing or swallowing, or have a fever or facial swelling, call 999 or get straight to A&E. These are signs that the infection has spread further into your jaw and you need urgent treatment.
Gum abscess drainage
The first priority with any dental abscess treatment is to drain the pus that has built up and remove the source of the infection. How to drain the tooth abscess will depend on the type of abscess you have.
Your dentist may begin by taking an x-ray to determine how far the abscess has spread and what kind of treatment is needed.
Gum abscess treatment is relatively straightforward. It may be possible to release the pus and drain the gingival abscess by applying gentle pressure, just as you would with a pimple on your skin. The dentist will then use a small probe to scrape the remaining infected material from inside the abscess.
In other cases, the dentist may have to make a small incision in the gum boil to access the infected area.
Provided the infection hasn't spread into the periodontal structure, no further treatment will be required, although antibiotic treatment may aid recovery.
If you have a gum abscess which ruptures by itself, you may find that the pain subsides significantly when the pressure is released. However, this doesn't mean the infection has cleared. You should still visit your dentist to have the area cleaned properly.
Where a fistula has formed on the gum because of a periodontal abscess, the dentist will insert a thin probe into the hole. They will then take an x-ray (with the probe still in place), and from this they can see the original source of the infection.
Root canal treatment for abscessed teeth
Periapical abscesses can often be treated with a root canal. This involves drilling down through the crown of the tooth to access the infected pulp chamber. The pus is drained and the cavity is cleaned and disinfected.
The dentist often widens each root canal using small files. This makes them easier to fill but is a delicate process which takes some time.
Root canal treatment may require several visits, especially if the affected tooth is a premolar or molar (rear chewing tooth), since these have two or three roots which may contain one or two root canals each.
Between visits, the dentist coats the cavity with an antibiotic paste and applies a temporary filling.
At the final visit, the dentist will remove the temporary filling and check that there is no trace of infection remaining. Provided the infection has cleared, the dentist will apply a permanent filling. Depending on the amount of damage to the tooth, a dental crown may also be needed.
Most dentists will use a cofferdam during root canal treatment to isolate the tooth being treated. This rubber sheet is fitted around the tooth to keep it dry. It also stops any chemicals from entering your mouth while you're receiving treatment.
Here is a short video explaining how root canal treatment is conducted:
Gum abscess complications leading to extraction
In the case of periapical and periodontal abscess treatment, if the infection has spread into the jaw bone or periodontal ligament it may be necessary to extract one or more teeth. Extraction is a last resort, though, and will only be done if the dentist judges the bone to be too far eroded to support the teeth.
With periodontal abscess treatment, the dentist will first carry out a deep cleaning of the gum pocket. He or she can then assess the extent of the infection. Oral x-rays will also reveal how far the infection has spread.
The abscess may have caused the tooth to become loose, and in this case an extraction may be the only solution.
Extraction may also be necessary in cases where re-infection occurs after abscess removal, or when infection occurs in a tooth that has already undergone root canal treatment.
Mouth abscess treatment is usually carried out under local anaesthetic. If extensive treatment is needed, a general anaesthetic may be administered.
Medication for dental abscess treatment
Following tooth or gum abscess treatment, patients can usually manage any residual pain with over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol. Dentists may also advise patients to rest and only eat soft foods for a while after their surgery.
Once the infection is cleared, your body should soon recover.
Tooth abscess antibiotics
Depending on the severity of the abscess, dentists may prescribe antibiotics for the tooth infection. Dental abscess antibiotics like amoxicillin and flucloxacillin are usually only issued when the patient has a fever, the infection is particularly widespread, or there is a high risk of complications.
If your dentist does prescribe antibiotics for a gum abscess, they will tell you about the dosage and how long your tooth abscess antibiotics will take to work. Make sure you follow their instructions and complete your course of treatment, even if you feel better sooner.
How much does it cost to treat an abscess in the mouth?
If you get emergency dental treatment with an NHS dentist, a flat rate of £22.70 is applied regardless of the procedure performed.
When not classed as emergency treatment, most tooth abscess treatments (including root canals and extractions) fall into the band 2 charge of £62.10. If a crown is required to repair a badly decayed tooth, the higher rate of £269.30 applies (prices correct for 2019/20 in England – view all NHS dental pricing here).
Costs will vary if you seek mouth abscess treatment privately. Not only do charges vary from one dentist to another and between regions, but the type of treatment required for a dental infection will differ for each patient.
Dental insurance cover
Many dental insurance policies will reimburse some or all of the costs incurred for tooth infection treatment, especially if it's considered an emergency.
If you already have a mouth abscess, it may be too late to take out a new insurance policy for immediate treatment since insurers usually apply waiting periods. However, it should help lower your bill the next time you need to visit a dentist.
Questions to ask your dentist
If you suspect you have a mouth abscess, here are some questions you may wish to ask your dentist at your appointment:
- Which type of oral abscess do I have?
- What treatment do you recommend?
- Are there any other options for treatment of the infection?
- How long will treatment take, and how many visits will I need?
- Will I need to take time off work to recover?
- How often should I come for check-ups in future?
- What oral care products do you recommend?
In some cases, damaged teeth become discoloured over time. You may want to ask your dentist how likely this is in your case, and what tooth whitening options may be available if you do experience tooth discolouration.
Gum abscess home treatment
Although the only way to be sure of effective treatment is with a visit to the dentist, there are some home treatments which can help alleviate the pain and stop infection spreading further while you wait for your appointment. So, how can you treat a tooth abscess at home?
The best form of tooth abscess pain relief is ibuprofen, but paracetamol is second best. If you find just one of these ineffective, you may take both ibuprofen and paracetamol up to the maximum doses shown on the packets.
Other tooth abscess home remedies include:
- Rinsing and gargling with warm salt water
- Avoiding hot or cold food and drink
- Eating only soft foods
- Avoiding flossing around the affected area
- Using a soft toothbrush
It's not possible to purchase antibiotics for tooth infection over-the-counter in the UK; they must be prescribed by a dentist. If you don't seek professional treatment for your abscess, it is likely the infection will keep spreading. This can lead to serious damage to your teeth, periodontal ligament and jaw bone. The infection might spread to other parts of your body, if left for long enough.
Remember that just because an abscess has drained and the pain has subsided, this doesn't mean the infection is gone. You still need to visit a dentist.
How to prevent tooth and gum abscesses
Maintaining good oral hygiene will minimise your chances of developing an abscess in your tooth or gum. There are many steps you can take to keep your teeth and gums as healthy as possible:
- Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss or use an interdental brush at least once a day
- Avoid consuming sugary drinks and foods as snacks between meals or just before going to bed
- Where possible, brush soon after consuming foods and drinks with a high sugar or starch content
- Regularly visit your dentist to have oral check-ups
Even if you do develop dental cavities because of tooth decay, the affected tooth or teeth can be treated with a filling before the tooth pulp becomes infected. This is far preferable to undergoing root canal treatment or an extraction for an abscessed tooth, so regular trips to the dentist are very important.
If you still have your wisdom teeth, especially if they haven't emerged properly, speak to your dentist about whether it would be wise to have them removed. Since wisdom tooth abscesses are relatively common, having the teeth removed is often the best way to prevent infections and other complications.
Finally, you should seek dental care if you experience any trauma to your teeth, for example chipping or cracking. Even if there is no immediate pain, bacteria can invade the tooth immediately and a dental infection may develop within days.
Tooth abscess in children
Tooth and gum abscesses can affect children just as they affect adults, and are usually a result of poor oral hygiene.
If you notice any signs of a tooth abscess in your child, take them to a dentist straight away. These symptoms, as mentioned above, include:
- Severe tooth pain
- A nasty taste in their mouth
- A lump or swelling in the mouth
- Facial swelling
- Discomfort while eating
- A high temperature
Dental abscess treatment for children can, as with adults, involve draining the abscess, removing the tooth, or prescribing antibiotics. If a milk tooth is badly decayed and infected, it will probably be extracted. Root canal treatment is only performed on adult teeth.
Preventing dental abscesses in children
Simply put, the best way to stop children developing a dental abscess is to take good care of their teeth. This means brushing twice a day, restricting intake of sugary foods and drinks, and taking them for regular dental checkups.
Find out more about how to care for your child's teeth in our complete guide.
What does an abscess tooth feel like?
Tooth abscess pain can vary from a mild toothache to feeling like the side of your face is going to fall off. But in some cases, an abscess may not cause any pain at all. If you have any dental abscess symptoms, including if you can feel a lump somewhere in your mouth, it's best to get it checked.
Will a gum abscess go away on its own?
A tooth abscess can burst on its own but this doesn't mean the infection is gone. An abscess might originate at the root of your tooth or deep inside your gum pocket, and unless the whole cavity is cleaned, the infection is likely to return.
If your abscess has already burst, it may heal on its own. However, it's still a good idea to visit a dentist to ensure the infection has cleared. At the very least, be on the lookout for signs that your mouth infection has returned so you can get it looked at straight away.
Can you drink alcohol with an abscess tooth?
Drinking alcohol is unlikely to make your tooth infection worse, but it won't help heal it either. Abscessed teeth may be more sensitive to cold or acidic drinks too.
If you find yourself relying on alcohol to numb the pain, you definitely need to get to the dentist. Also remember to avoid alcohol if you're taking antibiotics to treat an abscess.
How do you drain a tooth abscess at home?
It may be tempting to try and pop a gum boil by yourself, but this is not something we recommend. Popping your tooth abscess may relieve the pressure, but some of the pus is likely to remain inside and the infection will continue. You may even make it worse by exposing the wound to other bacteria.
A dentist can drain the abscess in a sterile environment and ensure all the infected tissue is removed so that it heals properly.
Can you die from a gum abscess?
In very rare cases, an oral abscess can be fatal. This is because if the infection is left untreated, it can reach the blood stream and spread throughout the body. An abscessed tooth is known to have caused widespread organ failure in one case and swelling of the brain in another, both leading to death.
Don't worry though; the fact that you're reading this article means you have the chance to seek medical attention before you reach this serious stage. If you're worried you have a tooth or gum abscess, get straight to a dentist to have it checked.