Last Updated on June 8, 2023 by Beth Skwarecki
A tooth infection, or a dental abscess, is a common dental problem when bacteria invade the tooth’s innermost layer or the gums surrounding the tooth. While most tooth infections are treatable, some can lead to severe complications, including death.
In this article, we will explore the severity of tooth infections, the risks of untreated infections, and how long it takes for a tooth infection to become life-threatening. We will also discuss treatment options and prevention measures to help you maintain good oral health and prevent tooth infections.
What Is A Tooth Infection?
A tooth infection, a dental abscess, is a localized infection in or around a tooth. It happens when bacteria enter the tooth’s pulp, the innermost layer that contains blood vessels and nerves, through a cavity or a crack in the tooth. As the bacteria multiply, they create pus, which causes pressure and pain.
Tooth infections can also occur in the gums surrounding a tooth when bacteria infect the gum tissue. Common symptoms of a tooth infection include pain, swelling, sensitivity to hot and cold food, bad breath, and fever. If left untreated, a tooth infection can lead to severe complications, including the spread of infection to other parts of the body and even death.
Causes Of Tooth Infection
Tooth infections are caused by the invasion of bacteria into the innermost layer of the tooth, known as the pulp. The most common causes of tooth infection include:
- Poor oral hygiene: Inadequate brushing and flossing can allow bacteria to accumulate in the mouth, leading to tooth decay and gum disease.
- Tooth decay: Cavities or decayed areas of the tooth can allow bacteria to enter the pulp and cause an infection.
- Gum disease: When bacteria invade the gums, it can cause inflammation and infection, leading to tooth loss and abscess formation.
- Trauma: A tooth that has been chipped or broken can expose the pulp to bacteria and cause an infection.
- Weakened immune system: People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to tooth infections because their body’s immune system is compromised.
- Medical conditions: Certain conditions, such as diabetes and autoimmune disorders, can increase the risk of tooth infections.
Signs Of Tooth Infection
The signs and symptoms of tooth infection can vary depending on the severity of the infection. Here are some common signs and symptoms to look out for:
- Pain: A tooth infection can cause severe and persistent pain that is often described as throbbing or shooting. The pain may worsen when biting down or applying pressure on the affected tooth.
- Swelling: Swelling in the gums, face, or neck is a common sign of a tooth infection. The swelling may be accompanied by tenderness or redness.
- Sensitivity: Teeth affected by an infection may become more sensitive to hot and cold temperatures and pressure.
- Bad Breath: An infected tooth can cause bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth.
- Fever: Sometimes, a tooth infection can cause a fever and chills.
- Difficulty Swallowing Or Breathing: If the infection spreads to the throat or airway, it can cause difficulty swallowing or breathing.
Risks And Complications Of Untreated Tooth Infection
If left untreated, a tooth infection can lead to serious complications and pose significant risks to your overall health. Here are some of the most common risks and complications of untreated tooth infection:
- Spread of infection: A tooth infection can spread to other body parts, including the jawbone, sinuses, brain, and bloodstream. This can cause serious infections like brain abscesses, meningitis, or sepsis.
- Tooth loss: If the infection spreads to the tooth’s supporting structures, such as the gums and jawbone, it can cause tooth loss.
- Facial swelling: Untreated tooth infections can cause facial, neck, and jaw swelling.
- Chronic pain: A chronic tooth infection can cause persistent pain and discomfort, even after the tooth has been treated or removed.
- Difficulty eating and speaking: Tooth infections can cause difficulty chewing, swallowing, and speaking.
- Damage to surrounding teeth: The pressure from a tooth infection can cause damage to the surrounding teeth, leading to additional dental problems.
- Systemic health issues: Recent studies have linked untreated tooth infections to an increased risk of systemic health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
How Long Until A Tooth Infection Kills You?
The amount of time it takes for a tooth infection to become life-threatening can vary depending on several factors, such as the severity of the infection and the individual’s overall health. A tooth infection can become life-threatening within days or weeks if left untreated.
The infection can spread rapidly from the tooth to the surrounding tissues and eventually enter the bloodstream, leading to sepsis, which is a life-threatening condition. Symptoms of sepsis can appear quickly and may include fever, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, confusion, and organ failure. If untreated, sepsis can lead to coma, multiple organ failure, and death.
Treatment Options For Tooth Infection
The treatment options for a tooth infection depend on the severity of the infection. Here are some standard treatment options:
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics are often used to treat a tooth infection that has spread or is at risk of spreading to other body parts. The type of antibiotic prescribed will depend on the specific bacteria causing the infection.
- Drainage: If an abscess (a pocket of pus) is present, the dentist may drain it to relieve pressure and facilitate healing.
- Root Canal: A root canal procedure may be necessary if the infection is confined to the pulp (the soft tissue inside the tooth). During a root canal, the dentist removes the infected pulp and cleans the inside of the tooth before sealing it.
- Extraction: If the tooth is severely damaged or the infection cannot be treated with a root canal, the tooth may need to be extracted.
- Pain Management: Pain management techniques such as over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription pain medications may be used to manage the discomfort caused by the infection.
- Improved Dental Hygiene: To prevent further tooth infections, practicing good dental hygiene, including regular brushing and flossing and routine dental checkups and cleanings, is important.
Prevention Of Tooth Infection
Preventing a tooth infection involves good oral hygiene and regular dental checkups. Here are some tips to prevent tooth infections:
- Brush and floss regularly: Brush your teeth at least twice daily and floss once daily to remove food particles and bacteria from your teeth and gums.
- Use mouthwash: Mouthwash can help kill bacteria in your mouth and freshen your breath.
- Avoid sugary and acidic foods and drinks: Sugary and acidic foods and beverages can promote the growth of bacteria and increase the risk of tooth decay and infection.
- Drink plenty of water: Drinking water can help flush bacteria and food particles out of your mouth.
- See your dentist regularly: Regular dental checkups and cleanings can help identify and treat tooth decay and other dental problems before they become infections.
- Address dental problems promptly: If you experience dental problems such as a cracked or chipped tooth, see your dentist as soon as possible to prevent bacteria from entering the tooth and causing an infection.
- Avoid smoking: Smoking can weaken your immune system and increase your risk of developing dental infections.
A tooth infection is a painful and potentially serious dental problem that can lead to severe complications and risks to overall health. It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a tooth infection and seek prompt dental care to prevent further complications. Treatment options for a tooth infection include antibiotics, drainage, root canal, extraction, and pain management. Preventing a tooth infection involves good oral hygiene practices and regular dental checkups. If you suspect a tooth infection, don’t hesitate to contact your dentist for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Beth is Cloudmineinc’s senior health editor and a certified personal trainer. She has over 10 years experience as a science journalist and is the author of two books. She deadlifts over 315 lbs.