Most people would rather endure a toothache, no matter how painful, than visit a dentist. But a persistent toothache combined with swelling is often a sign that you have an infection, and once infection sets in, proper and immediate treatment is necessary to prevent it from spreading and worsening.

What causes a tooth infection?

A tooth infection usually starts when a cracked tooth or tooth decay is left untreated. Either one of these conditions make the tooth, particularly the nerves inside, susceptible to infection. The tooth infection is known as a tooth abscess, and is characterized by swelling of the affected pulp tissue in the tooth and accumulation of pus.

If the tooth abscess is also ignored and left untreated, the infection can spread deeper into the jaw bone, which will require major surgery. According to the Mayo Clinic, serious and even life-threatening complications can arise from an untreated tooth abscess.

Signs of a tooth infection

  • Severe and persistent throbbing toothache, accompanied by pain in the jawbone, ear, and/or neck
  • Swollen face or cheek
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold food and drinks
  • Sensitivity to pressure, such as when brushing the teeth, chewing, or biting
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck/under the jaw
  • Foul taste or breath that won’t go away even after brushing or rinsing with a mouthwash
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing

If you have any of these symptoms, visit your dentist as soon as possible. The same Mayo Clinic article also warns that any combination of swelling, fever, and difficulty breathing or swallowing requires immediate medical attention. If your regular dentist is not available to see you right away, ask him for a referral for same-day treatment, or simply head to the nearest dental clinic or emergency room. These symptoms could mean that the tooth abscess has worsened and spread to your jaw bone, neck, or other areas of your body.

What are the treatment options?

What are the risk factors?

Factors that increase your risk for tooth decay, cavities, and gum disease also increase your risk for infection.

  • Poor oral care habits.
  • Eating and drinking sugar-rich foods and drinks.
  • Having dry mouth.

How can you prevent a tooth infection?

  • Regular tooth brushing, at least twice a day and using fluoride toothpaste.
  • Flossing daily.
  • Replacing your toothbrush every three or four months to ensure your teeth are always properly cleaned.
  • Having a healthy diet, especially foods that are good for the teeth and bones; avoiding sugary foods and drinks.
  • Rinsing your mouth with an antiseptic or fluoride mouthwash.
  • Visiting your dentist regularly.

Don’t ignore a toothache, even if it’s minor and tolerable, and especially if you have a cavity. It’s best to seek treatment for a simple problem rather than wait until it becomes worse. If you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms, book a dental appointment immediately. And start practicing good oral care habits today.