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Serious Tooth Infections: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

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Your teeth are packed with nerves. That is why a toothache, while only affecting a small area of the mouth, is no small matter. The pain from a toothache can be debilitating, and it's usually the result of a deeper issue. A tooth infection may be the cause of your toothache, resulting in soreness, sensitivity, or sharp pains in your mouth. Read on to learn more about the usual causes of an infected tooth and how to banish toothache pain with good oral care habits and the help of your dentist.

Signs and Symptoms

A sore or throbbing tooth is one of the first signs of a problem. Left untreated, what may have been an uncomplicated issue can lead to infection, resulting in pain, redness, swelling and a high fever that indicates your body is attempting to fight the infection. You might also notice a foul taste in your mouth or bad breath that won't go away with brushing or rinsing with a mouthwash. In some cases you may have a broken tooth, but infections can often go undetected deep within the core of teeth, without any outward signs other than pain and swelling.

Some signs that a minor cavity has progressed to an infection include:

  • Throbbing pain in the tooth, jawbone or neck
  • Swelling in the cheek
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold
  • Pressure-related sensitivity
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

The Mayo Clinic warns that if you have both a fever and swelling, or you have trouble breathing or swallowing, you should seek medical attention immediately. This is a sign of a severe infection that may have spread into your jawbone and surrounding areas. If possible, contact your dentist for same-day treatment or ask your regular dentist for a referral to a dentist who can see you immediately. If you still can't see a dentist, go to the emergency room for care.


The American Dental Association warns that most tooth infections are the result of untreated tooth cavities or a cracked tooth. When germs penetrate enamel, they can infect the tender nerves in the pulp tissue of the tooth, resulting in a condition commonly called an abscess. Abscessed teeth require treatment from your dentist, and the longer you wait to seek treatment, the more complicated the infection may become. Any tooth can become abscessed, because all of your teeth have sensitive tissue susceptible to infection. According to Scientific American, however, people with molars that have deep grooves are more susceptible to cavities. In some cases, the infection can actually reach the jaw bone and result in the need for extensive oral surgery, so it's important to call for an appointment as soon as you suspect a possible infection.

Treatment Options

Your dentist will need to clean out the infection before repairing the tooth – this procedure is called a root canal. Root canals require the drilling of the tooth to reach the infected area. The infection is then removed and the canal cleaned out with an antibacterial solution, after which a crown is placed over the tooth to protect it. Root canals can be minor or major, depending on how long the infection has been active. Your dentist may also prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.


No one wants to deal with the pain and disruption caused by a tooth infection, which is why prevention is such an important part of your dental treatment plan. Broken teeth can't always be avoided, but cavities caused by poor oral habits can be prevented. Brush at least twice a day with a toothpaste that helps fight germs. Brushing and flossing get rid of the germs that can infiltrate enamel and lead to dental cavities. You can also prevent infection by seeing your dentist for regular check-ups. He or she can use X-rays to locate potential cavities and weak spots, and can address minor issues before they become painful infections.

Don't let a full-scale infection disrupt your life. If you notice that tell-tale sign of a toothache, it's best to seek treatment and take care of the issue as soon as possible to prevent the infection from getting worse. Practising good oral hygiene habits will help to protect your smile from the cavities and germs responsible for painful infections.

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