What is a dental abscess?
An abscess is a collection of pus. Pus is a thick fluid that usually contains white blood cells, dead tissue and bacteria (germs). The usual cause of an abscess is an infection with bacteria.
A dental abscess is a localised collection of pus in a tooth, or in nearby structures. They are classified into two main types:
This type of abscess starts in the dental pulp (centre of the tooth). This is the most common type. This type of abscess usually develops as a complication of tooth decay (caries). Dental decay is very common and erodes (damages and breaks down) the protective layers of the tooth (the enamel and dentine). The damage to the tooth allows bacteria to invade the pulp to cause an infection.
An infection in the pulp can progress to form an abscess. Sometimes a periapical abscess develops if the nerve to the tooth 'dies' for any reason. For example, from injury. The 'dead' tissue inside a tooth is more prone to infection.
This type of abscess starts in the supporting structures of the teeth such as the periodontium which is between the tooth and the gum. It most commonly develops as a complication of gum disease (periodontal disease) which is infection or inflammation of the tissues that surround the teeth. Gum disease often causes the gum to become slightly detached from the tooth. This causes 'pockets' to form which may get filled with bacteria and progress to form an abscess. A periodontal abscess may also develop as a complication of injury to the gums or periodontium. A periodontal abscess is sometimes called a 'gum boil' as the abscess causes a swelling to develop next to a tooth.
What are the symptoms of a dental abscess?
Symptoms typically include one or more of the following:
* Pain (toothache) which can quickly become worse. It can be severe and throbbing.
* Swelling of the gum which can be tender.
* Swelling of the face. The skin over an abscess may become red and inflamed.
* The affected tooth may become tender to touch, and may even become loose.
* High temperature (fever) and feeling generally unwell.
* In severe cases there may be spasm of the jaw muscles with difficulty swallowing and/or breathing.