Dental Abscesses

What is a dental abscess?

An abscess is one of the most common reasons for needing emergency dental treatment as they are extremely painful and can cause pain quite suddenly. They require immediate treatment. An abscess is actually one of the body's defence mechanisms against infection. The abscess forms to keep the pus caused by the infection localised to one area, preventing the spread of the infection. As the infection continues, abscesses grow larger and larger and can cause pressure to mount. If left untreated they can burst, allowing infection to spread. Dental abscesses can be found either on the gum tissue, between the teeth or in the tooth's pulp. The latter is the most dangerous as it can kill the tooth.

What causes a dental abscess?

The direct cause of an abscess is infection, but the infection itself is generally caused by plaque build up. You can also get infections because teeth are injured or broken, but the most common cause is tooth decay caused by a build of plaque bacteria. Plaque builds up on our teeth daily, and if it is not properly removed by brushing and regular trips to the dentist, it gradually erodes the outer layer of the tooth exposing the inner pulp.

What to do if you think you have an abscess

The pain from an abscess can erupt quite suddenly and can affect your whole mouth rather than just the infected tooth. If you suspect you have an abscess you should call the dentist immediately for an emergency appointment. Early treatment can prevent the need for an extraction as well as preventing the spread of infection. Taking over-the-counter painkillers can help ease the pain, as can holding a cold compress to your jaw.

How is an abscess treated?

Your treatment will largely depend on what kind of abscess you have. An abscess on the surface of the gum can usually be drained to relieve the pain and the pressure, and then antibiotics can be administered to cure the infection.

An abscess between the teeth, known as a periodontal abscess, can also be drained, but creates more complications because of the gap left behind. Antibiotics will ensure the infection does not return, but the dentist will need to clean the space thoroughly and shape the tooth to encourage the gum to grow back around the roots. This will close any gaps where infection could develop again.

An abscess growing within your tooth is called a periapical abscess, and is more complicated to treat. Your dentist will need x-rays and will probably perform root canal surgery. After this, the tooth is effectively dead, but is filled and treated like a healthy tooth.