An infected tooth is when bacteria get inside the living part of the tooth, called the pulp. Bacteria not only kill the living part of the tooth, they multiply in large numbers, creating pressure inside the tooth. Pressure on the tooth nerve causes pain. The body’s immune response also causes swelling of the soft tissue, which creates even more pressure. Sometimes an infected tooth is called an abscessed tooth, because abscesses are closely linked to infection. An abscess is a fluid-filled sore that can develop at the tooth root or in the gums because of an infection in or around the tooth.
Symptoms of an Infected Tooth
So, how do you know if you have an infected tooth? Watch for these symptoms:
- Sensitivity to heat, cold, or pressure
- Swelling around the tooth
- Tooth turns dark
- Tooth feels loose
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Persistent bad breath
- Foul taste in the mouth
- Pimple-like sore (abscess) on the gums
- Fatigue or lack of energy
People assume that very bad pain is the main symptom of an infected tooth, but the truth is that levels of pain can vary widely in a tooth infection. For many people, the pain is severe and can radiate through the jaw. The pain may keep you up at night, and might even be felt in distant parts of the body. Others experience little pain, or only sensitivity to temperature changes and pressure. But the pain is caused by pressure in the tooth, and if the tooth can drain, the pressure won’t build up. But in that case, the leaking fluid will lead to persistent bad breath and a foul taste in the mouth. The most serious symptoms to be aware of are fever, swollen lymph nodes, and difficulty swallowing or breathing. These are signs that your tooth infection is affecting more than just your tooth. Contact a dentist immediately or try to get to the emergency room if you can’t get a dental appointment soon.
Home Remedies for an Infected Tooth
In general, home remedies are not recommended for an infected tooth. You should get professional care, and the infection will not resolve until you do. However, you can attempt to reduce discomfort from an infected tooth with ice or over-the-counter pain medications.
When to See a Doctor
You should contact your dentist for an appointment if you have any symptoms of a tooth infection. If your symptoms include fever, difficulty swallowing or breathing, low energy or fatigue, or swollen lymph nodes, you should try to get an appointment as soon as possible, even if that means getting to the emergency room. (Although you will get better treatment at a dentist’s office.)
Your infected tooth will be diagnosed based on the symptoms you report and an exam of your tooth. Sometimes, x-rays might be used to check for abscesses under your tooth–it’s a special type of x-ray, different from the usual bitewing style. Sometimes a dentist might test the suspected tooth or others nearby to see if they are vital or dead.
Treatment for your tooth depends on the level of the infection and how your body is responding to it.
Root Canal Therapy
For most infected teeth, your dentist will recommend root canal therapy. The goal of this treatment is to remove the infection. Then the dentist will replace it and the rest of the living part of the tooth with inert material that shouldn’t get infected. Finally, the tooth will be protected, usually with a dental crown. When the procedure is complete, the tooth will look and function as good as new.
If your tooth is badly damaged so it can’t be saved or if the infection needs urgent attention, tooth extraction might be preferred. Removing the source of the infection quickly can let your body start to heal. You might later want to consider replacing an extracted tooth with a denture or dental implant.
Antibiotics are rarely the only treatment used for an infected tooth. Typically, antibiotics will cause the infection to wane, but it will return after the antibiotics are done. However, antibiotics are often used as a supplemental treatment, especially if some of the infection has spread from your tooth to other parts of the body.
There are many potential complications of tooth infection. You can lose the infected tooth. Sometimes the infection will spread to other teeth, leading to the loss of multiple teeth. If left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of the body. Infection can spread from the tooth to your sinuses and then to your brain. Oral bacteria can be aspirated (inhaled), and trigger pneumonia. Bacteria from your tooth can enter your bloodstream, leading to a blood-borne infection (sepsis). Any of these complications can be fatal. Even if an infected tooth doesn’t cause immediate complications to your health, it can contribute to long-term problems. Tooth infection has been linked to heart problems, for example, and it’s possible that future research will reveal further complications of this condition.
Most infected teeth start as cavities. Taking good care of your teeth can help you avoid tooth infection. Make sure you brush twice a day and floss every day. [Regular dental checkups give your dentist the opportunity to clean your teeth professionally. This reduces the buildup of oral bacteria and can head off infection. Regular checkups also give your dentist the opportunity to spot cavities when they’re small, before they can cause a tooth infection.