How to Know if a Tooth Infection Is Spreading to the Body

How to Know if a Tooth Infection Is Spreading to the Body
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How to Know if a Tooth Infection Is Spreading to the BodyClinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. About An Untreated Tooth Infection
  2. Signs An Infection is Spreading
  3. Treatment
  4. Next Steps
  5. References

Generally, a tooth infection comes with pain and tooth sensitivity. When it has spread to the rest of your body, you are likely to feel sick. Often, you will experience fever and general feelings of being unwell.

A tooth infection is a dental abscess, or a buildup of pus in the gums or teeth. It is generally the result of a bacterial infection.1

When you eat or drink, plaque sticks to the teeth and gums, and interacts with the bacteria in the mouth. If you do not brush or floss to remove this plaque and bacteria, an infection can occur. This can cause pus to build up in the tooth, gums, or bones.

A tooth infection, especially one that has spread, requires dental treatment as soon as possible to prevent further complications.

Untreated Tooth Infection

A dental abscess can happen after trauma to the tooth or a cavity. It will usually cause pain, swelling, and sensitivity to touch and temperature, both hot and cold. You may also lose your appetite and notice redness around the affected tooth.

Typically, you will notice pain at or near a tooth that is infected. However, tooth infections are not always painful. In these instances, you may not know a tooth is infected. You should usually be able to see some swelling or redness. If you do, you need to have it checked by a dentist, as this can be a sign of a dental abscess.

Left untreated, a tooth infection can spread to other parts of your body, including the soft tissue of the face, jawbone, neck, and, in rare cases, the heart or brain.2 A tooth infection that has spread to the rest of your body can become life-threatening without prompt dental treatment.

Potential serious complications of a tooth infection that has spread to the body can include:3

  • Blood poisoning (septicemia)
  • Brain abscess
  • Shock
  • Blood clot in the brain sinuses (cavernous sinus thrombosis)
  • Death

Signs a Tooth Infection Is Spreading

It is important to seek treatment as soon as you suspect a tooth infection, especially if you think it is spreading to the body. Here are signs to watch out for that can indicate that a dental abscess has spread:4

  • Swelling of the face and neck
  • Painful mouth and tongue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Skin feeling itchy or a burning sensation
  • Double or blurry vision
  • Confusion
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Trouble breathing

In rare cases, when a tooth infection has spread, you may also experience lockjaw, trouble swallowing and talking, cellulitis, and dehydration.

Any time you have tooth pain or swelling that is accompanied by feeling sick, it can signal you have a tooth infection that is spreading to the body. It is important to be seen by a dentist right away.

A tooth infection that has spread can travel into your neck and block your airway.5 This can be a life-threatening complication. If you cannot be seen by an emergency dentist right away, seek medical care.

Treating a Tooth Infection

The earlier you treat a tooth infection, the better. It is best to catch it before it gets too serious and spreads to other parts of your body.

Treatment for a dental abscess needs to be given by dental professionals. It will often include draining the pus, antibiotic medications, pain control medication, and addressing the source of the infection.

A root canal is often needed to remove infection from deep inside a tooth. Root canals involve drilling deep inside a tooth to remove infected tissue and pus from the root area. The tooth is then filled with a composite material and often topped with a crown.

When the infection is even deeper, an apicoectomy, or root end resection, is needed to open up the gum tissue and remove the end of the root of the tooth where the infected tissue has reached.

Next Steps for a Spreading Tooth Infection

Treatment for a systemic infection, which is what occurs when the tooth infection has spread beyond the tooth, is dependent on the severity of the infection, what parts of the body it has spread to, and the source. A systemic infection can be a serious complication of an untreated tooth infection. Again, it requires immediate medical and dental attention.

More serious complications of a tooth infection that has spread to the body can include septic shock, which will require hospitalization and medical treatment along with dental care. As soon as you think you have an infected tooth, it is important to see your dentist right away. They can determine if the infection is localized (still within the tooth) or if it has spread, requiring more intensive treatment.

A spreading tooth infection needs to be managed quickly to keep it from becoming a life-threatening condition. You can prevent tooth infections by practicing good oral hygiene. Brush and floss your teeth regularly, and keep up with routine dental checkups as recommended by your dentist.

General References

Dental Abscess. (February 2020). American Dental Association. Date Fetched: August 26, 2021.

Dental Abscess. (January 2021). StatPearls Publishing. Date Fetched: August 3, 2021.

Medical References

1 The Microbiology of the Acute Dental Abscess. (2009). Journal of Medical Microbiology. Date Fetched: August 26, 2021

2 Abscessed Tooth. (August 2020). Cleveland Clinic. Date Fetched: August 26, 2021

3 Dental Abscess: A Microbiological Review. (September–October 2013). Dental Research Journal (DRJ). Date Fetched: August 26, 2021.

4 Systemic Diseases Caused by Oral Infection. (October 2000). Clinical Microbiology Reviews. Date Fetched: August 26, 2021.

5 Dental Abscess. (April 2021). BMJ Best Practice. Date Fetched: August 26, 2021.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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