Dental Abscess: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Dental abscess can cause great discomfort and pain for most patients. If you happen to have a dental abscess you may be wondering why you have one and how you can treat it. Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and available treatments for tooth abscesses.

What is a dental abscess?

A dental abscess, also called a tooth abscess, is a pocket of pus located in the dental gums and/or roots. It frequently resembles a pimple in appearance, and can occur at four different regions of a tooth for a variety of reasons. The abscess is caused by a bacterial infection beneath the skin’s surface.

There are two main types of abscesses which occur in your mouth – periapical, and periodontal abscesses. 

  • Periapical abscess (abscess on tooth). This abscess occurs at the tip of a tooth’s root, and is usually caused by untreated dental cavities, an injured or broken tooth, and/ or could even be caused by prior dental work. 
  • Periodontal abscess (abscess on gums). This abscess is not the consequence of untreated cavities, injuries or prior dental work. A tooth with a periodontal abscess is vital and healthy, without cavities or damages. If food gets trapped between the gum and tooth, bacteria can build up beneath the gum and in the bone. This process can cause an abscess on gums. 

Symptoms of a dental abscess

Dental abscesses are symptomatic of a gum or tooth infection. Symptoms of a tooth abscess are fairly obvious and similar for most patients. Note that some acute abscesses can be painless, but gums and cheeks may be swollen. Should the abscess occur on a tooth that has received a root canal, no pain may be present as the nerve is dead.

  • Extreme, sharp, or throbbing pain.
  • Increased pain when pressure or heat is applied to affected area. 
  • In extreme cases, swollen lymph glands and facial swelling.
  • Bad breath.
  • Fever.
  • Trismus – when the patient has difficulty opening his or her mouth.
  • Insomnia.
  • General unease.


What causes an abscess is fairly well understood by the medical community. We know that the main reason for dental abscesses is a bacterial infection of the roots, gums, and/or teeth. The infection has different ways of reaching the roots, gums, and teeth depending on which kind of abscess occurs.

In a periapical abscess, for example, bacteria reach the tooth through small holes caused by cavities. A periodontical abscess develops when bacteria present in plaque contaminate the gums. The patient develops periodontitis and the gums become inflamed. This in turn leads to the separation of the periodontal ligament (tissue surrounding the root of the tooth) and the tooth base. A periodontal pocket is a small crackis formed when the periodontal ligament detaches from the root. This small gap becomes dirty easily and is difficult reach when brushing an flossing. As bacteria continue to grow in the periodontal gap, a periodontal abscess is formed.


Abscesses are easily diagnosed by a qualified dentist. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatments available. Once a dental abscess is diagnosed, the first order of business is for your dentist to drain the abscess and get rid of the infection. S/he will also prescribe antibiotics for tooth infections to cure the infection before continuing work on your tooth or root. Sometimes a tooth can be salvaged by performing root canal surgery; other times the tooth will be pulled and either replaced with a dental implant, or bridge, depending on what the patient decides. 

Leaving a dental abscess untreated can lead to serious complications that extend beyond a patient’s dental health. The pus can seep into other bodily passages, and reach vital organs. Some of the consequences of leaving an oral abscess untreated include:

  • Brain damage
  • Heart damage
  • Sinus problems
  • Jaw bone damage
  • Coma
  • Death 

Sacramento Dental and You

A dental abscess is one of the earliest warning signs of a problem in your mouth. If you think you have an abscess inside of your mouth, please see your dentist at your earliest convenience. Start alleviating the pain today and give Sacramento Dental a call today!

Posted on October 1, 2013 .