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Dental abscess

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

A dental abscess describes a collection of pus either around a tooth, on the gum or on the jaw bone, and is caused by a bacterial infection.

You’re likely to get persistent throbbing in your tooth or gum, with pain spreading to the ear on that side. You might get redness and swelling of the face, and red gums if you look inside your mouth. It may be painful to chew food, difficult to take hot or cold drinks, and you (or others) might notice bad breath.

In severe infections, the infection can spread to other parts of the body, making you feel generally unwell and feverish.

Dental abscesses usually require antibiotic treatment. It is also best to take simple painkillers, avoid hot or cold foods and drinks as your mouth may be quite sensitive, try softer foods, and drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration.

It is important to visit your dentist regularly to ensure you maintain good oral hygiene and follow their advice to maintain healthy teeth and gums at home.

What causes it?

Dental abscesses form when bacteria build up in the mouth. This can be caused by poor oral hygiene, so it is important to floss and brush your teeth regularly.

Bacteria feed on sugars, so you may be putting your teeth and gums at higher risk if you're eating lots of sugary or starchy food and drinks. It can also affect those with poorly controlled diabetes.

You're at higher risk of infection, including those in the mouth, if you are immunocompromised from certain medical conditions or medications. Smoking and alcohol abuse considerably raise your risk of an abscess, tooth decay, and gum disease.

When to see your dentist?

It’s important to note that you should not contact your doctor for tooth problems – dentists can prescribe antibiotics for teeth or gum problems, or perform any mouth surgery such as abscess drainage, tooth removal or root canal surgery. These may be the treatments you require to treat the problem.

You should contact your dentist or an emergency dentist if you have a tooth abscess. They will examine you and advise on the next step. While waiting for this appointment, take painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

If you feel unwell with a fever and can’t contact your dentist, call 911 or go to your nearest Emergency Department.

Am I fit for work?

Aside from the pain, which may be too distracting to let you get on with work, you can be quite unwell with a dental abscess and it may spread if not appropriately treated. Taking time off work is best to get the treatment you need and recover.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Pain is often the worst symptom for people, which can be managed with simple painkillers while you wait to see your dentist. Ibuprofen is best for this type of pain, or acetaminophen could be used as a second option.

Ensuring that you pay good attention to your oral hygiene is an important way of preventing dental infections. This can be done by brushing your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and using good dental floss or an interdental brush to clean underneath the gum line.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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