An abscess in the soft tissues of your mouth is among the most painful dental conditions a person may experience. Sometimes it comes on suddenly, the result of food particles (such as popcorn hulls) that become trapped under the gums. Other times, it’s a long-simmering infection that may have begun inside a tooth but has now spread to the nearby tissues of the gum and jaw. Occasionally, it can appear with only mild symptoms, or the pain may temporarily go away – but that doesn’t mean the infection has gone. Any time you suspect an abscess, it’s important to see a dentist for immediate treatment.
What exactly is an abscess? It is an area of swollen tissues surrounding a sac filled with pus. The pus forms around an active bacterial infection, and the pressure it creates can cause intense pain. There are essentially two types of abscesses: One type, called a periodontal abscess or gum boil, forms in the soft tissue between teeth and gums. It may result from gum disease, poor oral hygiene, or pieces of food that are lodged in the gum tissue. The other type, a periapical abscess, starts as an infection deep inside the tooth’s pulp (nerve chamber), and then works its way out of the tip (apex) of the tooth root into the jaw. It often stems from untreated tooth decay.
Most people who have an abscess seek help right away because of the pain. The good news is, proper dental treatment can offer relief very quickly. The best place to go for care is your dentist’s office: He or she has the expertise needed to properly diagnose and treat the underlying cause of the abscess. If a dentist is unavailable within a reasonable amount of time, a hospital emergency room can treat the pain and acute infection; however, you may still need to see a dentist to resolve the problem.
Generally, your dentist will try to remove the infected tissue in the abscess and, if possible, preserve the tooth. Root canal therapy, deep periodontal cleaning, or other procedures may be necessary. If it isn’t feasible to save the tooth, an extraction may be necessary; in that case, your dentist will recommend one or more tooth replacement methods. But as inconvenient as it may seem, it’s essential to get an abscess treated right away: If you just take pain relievers and hope for the best, you could end up with a severe problem.
Left untreated, an abscess won’t go away. In some cases, it may develop into a cyst (a fluid-filled cavity); or, it may continue to expand, resulting in more damage that requires surgery to remove. The infection can also spread to other parts of the mouth, the face, and other parts of the body, sometimes causing a serious or even life-threatening condition. So if you think you may have an abscess, don’t wait: The best thing to do is call your dentist’s office right away.