If you cannot see your dentist immediately, here are a few tips to relive the pain of an abscessed tooth.
A tooth abscess is a build-up of pus (a mix of tissue, bacteria and white blood cells) caused by an infection within the tooth. Abscesses develop at the base of the tooth, in the space between the gum and the tooth. They generally form when a hole is created in the tooth's enamel, allowing bacteria to enter and infect the pulp and nerves at the tooth's center.
Tooth abscesses can be caused by an untreated cavity, a chipped tooth or other mouth injury, or a poorly executed dental procedure, such as a filling. An abscess also can develop as the result of a botched root canal during which the dentist fails to remove all of the decayed material and bacteria.
Tooth abscesses are characterized primarily by acute, throbbing pain in a tooth. Some people experience a chronic, though less intense, toothache that persists for months at a time. Other symptoms of an abscess include swelling in the jaw, neck or face, fever, a change in the smell of the breath, pain when eating, sensitivity to extreme temperatures or a strange taste in the mouth.
Tooth abscess self-treatment is not recommended as the condition requires a dentist's treatment. Even if the abscess becomes so infected that it bursts, the infection has not necessarily been eliminated. Bacteria from a ruptured abscess still can spread to other parts of the body, so prompt medical care is necessary.
Complications can arise from a tooth abscess when the infection spreads to the soft tissue of the head, jawbone, and other parts of the body. Serious conditions such as a brain abscess, Ludwig's Angina (a condition that prevents normal breathing and swallowing), pneumonia and other life-threatening ailments can result.
A dentist diagnoses a tooth abscess by examining the tooth and performing tests such as X-rays to see any decay within the bone near the tooth. The dentist also may use more basic test techniques, such as a bite test to determine whether the patient experiences pain upon biting down or when the tooth is tapped. An abscessed tooth must be drained, which takes out much of the infection and relieves pain.
In most cases, the abscess is removed through a process of drainage called a root canal. Even after the infection has been cured through other means, a root canal may be necessary to remove any damaged tissue that remains in the tooth and mouth. A crown is generally placed over the tooth at the end of the surgery. In other cases, the tooth may need to be removed from the mouth to allow the pus to drain through the open socket. Another way to allow for drainage is for the doctor to cut a hole in the gums near the affected tooth.
Doctors generally prescribe antibiotics after draining a tooth abscess to battle the infection within the tooth and prevent the spread of bacteria to other parts of the body. Before and after treatment, patients can take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen to relieve pain. Washing the inside of the mouth with warm salt water also can relieve some discomfort. It's a good idea to get an X-ray of the area six months after treatment to make sure the affected area is healing. In some cases, when the damaged bone does not grow back properly, it may be necessary to seek treatment from a specialist called a periodontist, who can sculpt the area through surgery.
Good oral hygiene, including frequent brushing and flossing, combined with dental cleanings twice a year is the best way to prevent tooth abscesses. It's important to seek immediate medical attention if any dental problems arise.