Can An Untreated Dental Infection Be Fatal?

Most of us wouldn’t consider a dental problem to be a life-threatening condition… and fortunately, it rarely is. But even though it’s uncommon, serious bacterial infections resulting from dental diseases are still responsible for thousands of hospitalizations and dozens of deaths in the U.S. every year. What’s more, some recent studies indicate that these numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. How does a routine dental problem turn into a potentially fatal condition – and what can you do to prevent it from happening?

In many cases, the kind of bacterial infection that may be life-threatening develops from an untreated dental abscess. An abscess occurs when a pocket of bacteria begins to form in the soft tissue of the gums, or at the tip of a tooth’s root.  Potentially harmful bacteria exist alongside the thousands of other species commonly found in the mouth, and are normally kept in balance with good oral hygiene. But when provided with a favorable environment for growth (such as a deep cavity or a hidden pocket below the gum line) they may proliferate – causing inflammation, sometimes pain, and a spreading infection.

An abscess can develop when an ordinary cavity goes untreated for so long that the tiny hole in the tooth’s surface reaches into its inner pulp, allowing it to become infected with harmful bacteria. The bacteria may then pass through the tooth’s roots and into the tissues of the jaw.  In other cases, an abscess may result from gum disease, poor oral hygiene, or even a piece of food becoming trapped below the gum line. This condition usually doesn’t develop overnight, and the pain it can cause often drives a person to seek immediate treatment. But where and when an abscess is treated can have an impact on how well the problem is resolved.

Of course, the best way to treat an abscess is prevention. Getting regular dental checkups, and fillings when needed for cavities, can prevent most instances of tooth decay from going on to infect the tooth’s pulp tissue. Routine teeth cleaning and periodontal treatment when needed can help prevent abscesses that originate in the gums. But if the pulp is compromised due to deep decay or a fracture that extends into the tooth, root canal treatment will probably be recommended. Having a root canal can not only eliminate the infection – it can also preserve a tooth that would otherwise need to be extracted. In some cases, however, extraction may be the best option.

What happens if you don’t get root canal treatment when it’s needed? The answer may well be: an abscess. If you can manage to ignore the pain of infection, it may go away in time… but the infection itself won’t. Eventually, it may force you to seek treatment in an emergency room – which may not be the best option. Most ERs lack a dentist on staff, so treatment may focus on pain relief, along with a prescription for antibiotics. However, there may not be enough follow-up care focused on relieving the source of the infection; or, the infection may already be at a dangerous stage when you come in.

While fatal dental infections are rare, it’s clear that the sooner you get treatment for a routine dental problem, the more effective – and less costly – your treatment will be. That’s why it’s so important to have access to effective dental care when it’s needed… and to make use of it.


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