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Dental Abscesses and Gum or Tooth Infections: What You Need To Know

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You're relaxing after a day at work or spending time with your family when you feel a sharp pain in your mouth. If you have a history of dental problems – such as infection in gums, teeth or even cavities – the pain could be related to a dental abscess.

There are two types of dental abscess: A periapical, or tooth abscess, affects the root of the tooth. The other type, a periodontal (gum) abscess, affects the gums. The latter usually occurs in severe cases of periodontal disease, when the gums have pulled away from the teeth, causing pockets to form. Both types of abscess consist of small pockets that fill with bacterial pus. With the right treatment, you can recover from either type and regain control of your oral health.

Do I Have an Abscess?

Although tooth decay or a periodontal infection can be hard to detect at first, it's usually very easy to tell when an abscess forms. The biggest symptom is intense pain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes pain from a tooth abscess as continuous, sharp, and often severe enough to be disruptive. You might experience trouble chewing, sensitivity to hot or cold foods and even swollen lymph nodes – which help fight infection throughout the body.

You might also be able to feel the abscess in your mouth. In the case of a periodontal abscess, a lesion will form in the affected area. A small bump that looks like a pimple can also form on the gum near a tooth abscess.

What Should I Do?

See your dentist when you suspect or discover either type of abscess. Until your appointment, practice swishing with salt water to help ease the pain. Your dentist might also recommend taking an over-the-counter pain medication.

The first step in treating either a tooth or gum abscess is to drain the bacteria from the pocket and clean the area. Your dentist will most likely prescribe antibiotics to kill any remaining bacteria. Take the medication as directed for the best results.

The next step in treatment depends on the location of the abscess:

  • A root canal is often performed in the case of a tooth abscess, according to the Mayo Clinic. During this process, the dentist will remove the pulp from the center of the tooth, clean the area out, then fill the canal up and add a crown to support the tooth so it looks healthy and natural.
  • Treating a periodontal abscess involves seeing a periodontist to assist in draining the infection and providing a deep cleaning to the area with scaling and root planing. The process removes plaque and tartar from the surface of the tooth and from below the gumline. It also smooths the surface of the tooth and root, according to the NIH, making it more difficult for bacteria to cling to it. An antiobiotic may be prescribed to eliminate the infection. If the bone or gums are severely damaged from periodontal disease, a patient might need surgery to clean the infection from the bones and supporting tissue in order to keep an abscess from returning.

How Do I Keep It from Coming Back?

Once a dental abscess has been treated and resolved, practicing good oral care at home can help keep the issue from occurring again. Choose a toothpaste which offers germ-fighting protection and helps prevent tartar buildup. No matter what you do at home, it's always a good idea to see your dentist regularly, at least twice a year. If you have a history of infection in gums, your dentist might want to see you more often to make sure your gums stay healthy.

Getting treatment for a dental abscess is one of the best things you can do for your health. Untreated, the condition can cause further infection. With consistent care, it usually goes away, leaving you with a clean and healthy-looking smile.