What is a Dental Abscess?

D. Jeffress

A dental abscess is a complication of a severe tooth infection. When tooth decay or direct trauma expose the inner material of a tooth, it becomes prone to bacterial infection. Bacteria thrive in the tooth and burrow into the underlying roots and gum tissue, leading to a dental abscess. Pus and dead tissue build up underneath the tooth, causing pain and pressure in the mouth that worsens over time. A dentist can usually drain an abscess and prescribe antibiotics to save the tooth, but a severe infection may require the tooth to be surgically excised.

Painful or increased tooth sensitivity is one possible sign of a dental abscess.
Painful or increased tooth sensitivity is one possible sign of a dental abscess.

In most cases, a dental abscess is preceded by a cavity. Tooth decay can leave the soft center of a tooth, called the pulp, exposed to air, liquid, and food. Common bacteria in the mouth can become embedded inside the pulp and proliferate, quickly infecting the tooth and the underlying tissue. Breaking a tooth may also leave the pulp exposed, and gum diseases such as gingivitis can promote infections that originate underneath the teeth.

Brushing and flossing can help prevent a dental abscess.
Brushing and flossing can help prevent a dental abscess.

A person who has a developing dental abscess is likely to experience sensitivity to hot and cold, pain, and redness in the gums. Over time, pain and sensitivity tend to worsen and become constant. The gums and jaw may swell, and stagnant pus and bacteria can cause bad breath and a bitter taste. A fully developed abscess on the gum looks like a discolored, swollen sore that may break open and drain thick pus into the mouth.

A dental abscess can cause tooth pain.
A dental abscess can cause tooth pain.

When a person feels a mild toothache coming on, he or she may be able to treat it at home before it leads to infection and a dental abscess. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, mouth rinses, and regular brushing can relieve minor pain in many cases. Persistent or worsening symptoms, however, need to be assessed by a dentist. The dentist can inspect the painful tooth, check the gum tissue for signs of infection, and take x-rays to observe the inner root and surrounding structure.

Treatment for a dental abscess typically depends on the size of the mouth sore and stage of the infection. In most cases, the dentist can drain fluid from the abscess with a specialized needle and suction device. After draining the sore, the dentist can prescribe antibiotics and pain relieving medication. An infection that has penetrated deep into the gums may necessitate more aggressive treatment in the form of a root canal or surgical removal of the damaged tooth. Patients who receive proper treatment and follow their doctors' recommendations about home care usually experience quick, full recoveries.

X-rays may be needed when assessing a dental abscess.
X-rays may be needed when assessing a dental abscess.

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Discussion Comments


For those of you who have experienced a tooth abscess, you know how painful it can be. My mouth was very sensitive and it was hard to chew or eat anything because of the pain.

My abscess formed because a part of my tooth had broken off and this eventually led to an abscess. I am sensitive to any kind of tooth pain, and have never been lucky enough to have a toothache just go away on its own.

I try to take good care of my teeth so I don't have problems like these. I go to my dentist every 6 months for cleaning and hope I don't have to see him for other problems. Having an abscess was much more painful that I thought it would be and I even caught it before it got really bad.


@sunshined-- You are fortunate your tooth abscess was able to be resolved with just draining it. Mine was severe enough that I had to go another route. My dentist said I could either have a root canal done or he could pull the tooth.

Since this was way at the back of my mouth, I just told him to pull the tooth and be done with it. If this had been closer to the front of my mouth, I would have had the root canal done to save the tooth.


Having an abscessed tooth is no fun at all. Mine started out as a mild toothache that I thought would eventually go away. This continued to get worse and when my jaw started to swell, I knew it wasn't going to get better on its own.

Looking back, I should have been seen as soon as I noticed the toothache. I still would have had to receive treatment, but I could have saved myself several days of pain.

My dentist was able to drain the abscess and gave me some antibiotics to take. I learned my lesson, and if this happens again won't put off making an appointment.

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