Tooth Infection: Signs, Symptoms & Easing the Pain

Clinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
Last Modified:

Table of Contents

  1. What Is a Tooth Infection
  2. Causes of a Tooth Infection
  3. Signs of an Infected Tooth
  4. How to Get Relief Before Treatment
  5. Treatment Options
  6. References

A tooth infection, also called a tooth abscess, is a bacterial infection where pus collects in or around the tooth. This is generally caused by tooth decay that leaves a cavity, trauma to the tooth, or anything that can give bacteria access to the inside of the tooth (the pulp chamber).

One of the first indicators of a tooth infection is often a toothache, which can be accompanied by tooth sensitivity. A tooth infection needs to be treated right away to keep the infection from spreading beyond the tooth to the rest of your body. In the meantime, you can rinse with antimicrobial mouthwashes and saltwater rinses, use a cold compress, and take over-the-counter pain medications to ease the pain.

A dentist will often treat a tooth infection with a root canal. In some cases, the area will need to be drained and medications may be needed. If you suspect an abscessed tooth, call your dentist right away.

What Is a Tooth Infection?

All of our mouths are full of bacteria. When that bacteria reaches the pulp chamber in the middle of or underneath the tooth, it can cause a pocket of pus to form and create an infection. A tooth infection is localized to the tooth, but it can spread to the rest of the body and become much more dangerous.

There are several types of dental abscesses.

  • Periodontal: Infection starts in the bone supporting the tooth.

  • Periapical: Infection forms at the tip of the tooth’s root.

  • Pericoronal: Infection starts in the crown of the tooth.

  • Gingival: Infection begins in the gums.

  • Combined periodontal-endodontic: Infection develops in the dental pulp or periodontal tissues around the tooth.

Causes of a Tooth Infection

Most of the time, a dental abscess is a secondary condition. It usually occurs after the bacteria are able to access the dental pulp and inside the tooth, bone, and gum tissue.

These are common causes for a tooth infection:

  • Dental caries (cavities)

  • Trauma or injury to the tooth

  • Cracked, broken, or chipped tooth

  • Dental treatments, such as a root canal or deep fillings

  • Gum disease

Another cause for a tooth infection is when a tooth only partially comes in or erupts. This is often the case with wisdom teeth. Bacteria can get trapped between the crown of the tooth and the gum tissue, causing an infection.

You can be more prone to getting a tooth infection if you do not keep up with good oral hygiene. This puts you at a higher risk for tooth decay and gum disease, which are often precursors to a tooth infection. Smokers also have twice the risk of developing a tooth abscess.

If you have a dry mouth, this can allow bacteria to build up. Saliva is also not working as well to wash it away.

A weakened immune system also puts you at a higher risk for a tooth infection.

Signs You Have an Infected Tooth

One of the first things you are likely to notice as a symptom of a tooth infection is pain in, and often around, your tooth. This pain can be continuous, or it may only occur when chewing or putting pressure on the tooth. A toothache is quite regularly a sign that you have an abscessed tooth.

These are other signs and symptoms of a tooth infection:

  • Swelling around the tooth

  • Pain in your jaw, mouth, neck, and/or ears that is persistent

  • Tooth sensitivity to touch as well as hot and cold temperatures

  • Bad taste in your mouth

  • Redness in your gum tissue around the tooth

  • Bad breath

  • Fever

  • Swollen glands in the neck

  • Not feeling well overall

A tooth infection can spread to other parts of your body and become a potentially life-threatening systemic infection that needs prompt medical treatment. If you are experiencing trouble breathing, nausea and vomiting, vision issues, confusion, significant swelling to the face and neck, an itching or burning sensation on your skin, and severe headache along with fever and a toothache, seek immediate medical attention.

If untreated, a tooth infection can spread to areas such as the jawbone, tissues of the face and neck, and in rare cases, the condition can travel to the heart and brain.

How to Get Relief Before Treatment

A tooth infection can usually be treated on an outpatient basis with localized treatment.

Sometimes, it can take a little time to get in to see a dentist, especially if your toothache becomes noticeable at night or on the weekend. If the toothache is not causing severe pain and you have no signs of a systemic infection, you can manage the symptoms at home until the dentist can see you.

Here are some tips for easing the pain and getting relief in the short term:

  • Gargle with a warm saltwater rinse.

  • Use an antiseptic mouthwash, or combine 3% hydrogen peroxide and water in a one-to-one ratio to make a mouth rinse.

  • Apply a cold compress or ice pack to the outside of your mouth on the affected side for 10 minutes every hour to reduce swelling.

  • Take over-the-counter pain-relieving medications.

  • Avoid flossing around that tooth until you see a dentist.

  • Brush your teeth carefully with a soft-bristled toothbrush.

  • Stick to soft foods that are not too hot or too cold.

If you are experiencing tooth pain, schedule an appointment with your dentist. Early intervention for a toothache can keep the infection from getting worse and spreading.

Treatment Options

The treatment for a tooth abscess will depend on the severity of the infection and where exactly it is located. A tooth infection will usually be treated in one of the following ways:

This procedure removes the infected dental pulp and tooth decay. A crown is usually placed on the tooth to help keep its shape.

A small cut will be made in the abscess, and the pus is drained out.

If the tooth infection is significant and the tooth cannot be saved, it may need to be removed altogether.

This is generally not used for a localized tooth abscess, as the infection will need to be treated directly and bacteria is often resistant to these medications. Medications can be part of a treatment plan for a tooth infection, particularly if the infection has spread beyond the tooth

To prevent an infection in your tooth, maintain good oral hygiene, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, refrain from using tobacco products, and see your dentist for regular checkups.

If you develop an abscess, it can usually be treated quickly and effectively. Your dentist can diagnose a tooth infection and develop a treatment plan to remove the infection. With prompt treatment, you can get your mouth healthy again quickly.

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.