Tooth Abscesses vs Tooth Infections: What is the Difference?

When teeth are healthy, strong and free from infection, they feel so comfortable that you are not aware of them. It is a very different story when a tooth becomes infected, and the pain of a tooth infection can be considerable. A dental abscess can feel even worse, but we find patients are frequently confused by the differences between these conditions.


What is a Tooth Infection?

Your mouth is home to hundreds of species of bacteria, many of which are benign, but some are harmful and can cause infection. Usually, your teeth have a hard outer coating of enamel that protects them and prevents bacteria from entering the tooth. You can have an infected tooth if you have a very deep cavity that isn’t treated, have gum disease (periodontal disease) or if a tooth is cracked. When a tooth is cracked, it lets in harmful bacteria. Even a small crack in a tooth can open up every time you bite down.

If tooth enamel is damaged through trauma or decay, these harmful bacteria can penetrate the tooth, soon reaching the tooth pulp. Your tooth pulp is right in the centre and contains the tooth nerve, connective tissues and blood vessels and extends into the tooth roots via root canals. When it becomes infected, it is extremely painful. The tooth nerve can also become damaged and inflamed if you take a blow to the mouth.


What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Tooth Infection?

Tooth infection symptoms usually include:

  • Throbbing pain in the affected tooth
  • Pain when you try to bite or chew on the tooth
  • Increased sensitivity to hot and cold foods and drinks

Sometimes a tooth will initially feel painful, but the discomfort might disappear. This doesn’t mean the infection is gone. It could mean the tooth nerve has died, so the tooth no longer feels painful, but the infection is still present. A tooth infection will not clear up on its own; your immune system cannot fight the infection as it can’t send antibodies to the inner part of the tooth. Instead, the infection will continue to spread beyond the tooth and the tooth root. It can start to affect the area between the tooth and your jawbone and turn into a tooth abscess.


What is a Tooth Abscess?

You have a tooth abscess if an untreated tooth infection spreads beyond your tooth root, and there are two main types of dental abscesses. Periapical abscesses are formed right at the tip of a tooth root. Periodontal abscesses form in the bone right next to the affected tooth and may be present if you have gum disease. If you have advanced gum disease, your gums can pull away from your teeth, creating deep pockets, called periodontal pockets, where bacteria can thrive, eventually causing an abscess.


What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Tooth Abscess?

An abscessed tooth can cause pain, but this isn’t always the case. Other symptoms include:

  • Swollen gums around the affected tooth
  • Pain when chewing
  • A persistent bad taste
  • Bad breath
  • Jaw pain

A severely abscessed tooth can cause a pimple to form on the gum, that if you press it will ooze pus. A dental abscess can affect overall health, as the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body. Signs to be aware of include swollen lymph nodes, facial swelling, fever and a general sense of feeling unwell. A tooth abscess may also cause trouble breathing or swallowing and a headache.

If you are concerned you have a dental abscess and think the infection has spread, you must seek emergency medical care. In rare cases, a severe tooth infection can spread to the brain and may become life-threatening.

Although similar conditions cause tooth infections and dental abscesses, treatment isn’t always the same. If you do have a painful tooth, contact Tandara Dental Centre as soon as possible. Dental pain isn’t normal and indicates a problem with a tooth that needs professional care. The sooner we can see you, the greater the chance we can successfully treat a tooth infection and save the tooth. It is much harder to save abscessed teeth.


What About Using Home Remedies for a Tooth Infection?

We know it is easy to look online and discover all sorts of remedies for tooth infections. However, home remedies for a tooth infection will not eliminate the bacteria causing this problem. You will need professional dental care. The sooner you see a dentist, the more quickly we can get rid of discomfort and pain and prevent the infection from spreading.


Diagnosing a Tooth Infection

When you visit Tandara Dental Centre, we can gently examine the tooth and quickly diagnose the reason for tooth pain. Our dentist will most likely take a dental x-ray of the tooth, showing the extent of the infection. Once we have this information, we can decide the best way to treat the infection and hopefully save the tooth.


Treating a Tooth Infection

If the infection has not spread into the surrounding tissue and is confined to the central part of the tooth, our dentist may recommend root canal treatment.


What is Root Canal Treatment?

Also called endodontic treatment, root canal treatment removes the infected dental pulp and the tissues extending into the root canals in the tooth roots. It is an intricate process that takes several visits to complete. Your tooth will feel much more comfortable after your initial visit to get rid of the infected tissues in the tooth, but it could still feel a bit sensitive for a while until it settles down.

Once all the infected tissue is removed, the tooth is disinfected, and medication is placed in the tooth to eliminate any remaining bacteria. We will insert a temporary filling to allow the medication to work. After several weeks, our dentist will remove the temporary filling, clean the tooth again and insert more medication and another temporary filling. The tooth is left to settle down for another few weeks to make sure it is infection-free. The next stage is to seal the tooth permanently with a material called gutta-percha. Sometimes a post is inserted into the tooth for additional strength.

Because a severely infected tooth has almost certainly lost a substantial part of its structure, it is restored with a dental crown. The crown fits over the entire tooth, sealing and protecting it from further infection. The crown restores appearance and strength, so you will be able to eat and talk comfortably and confidently. Your root treated tooth is now ‘non-vital’ as the nerve is removed and, consequently, more brittle but could last for years or life.

Sometimes a tooth that has received root canal treatment can become re-infected. At this stage, we would need to assess the tooth very carefully. It might be possible to perform a second root canal treatment to remove the infection, but we will need to discuss the possible risks and benefits of this approach. Treatment could be quite involved and costly and may have a limited chance of success. If this is the case, we might suggest removing the tooth and looking at suitable ways to replace it, such as placing a dental implant that can provide a long-term solution.


Diagnosing a Tooth Abscess

If we discover your tooth infection has spread beyond the tooth and that you have a tooth abscess, we will still try very hard to save the tooth. When we take the x-ray of your tooth, we can see if the abscess is treatable and any chance of saving the tooth. It depends on how far the infection has spread beyond the tooth.


Treating a Tooth Abscess 

You will almost certainly need antibiotics, and the abscess or pocket of pus on the gums might need to be lanced so it can be drained. When we can catch a tooth abscess soon enough, root canal treatment could save it. Unfortunately, if the infection is severe, the only solution may be to remove the tooth to help the infection drain adequately. Leaving the tooth in place could cause additional oral health problems, especially as the infection will have killed the tooth nerve, and there will be no blood flow to the tooth root to help fight the infection.


What About Wisdom Tooth Infections?

Your wisdom teeth usually come through during the late teens and early twenties and can cause problems if they cannot erupt properly and become impacted or stuck underneath the adjacent teeth. Often there is inadequate room for wisdom teeth, so they can cause problems with overcrowding, affecting the adjacent teeth. Some wisdom teeth will partially erupt, so they are tricky to keep clean and become decayed and infected more easily. An impacted and infected wisdom tooth can cause toothache and jaw pain and must be removed.

If your wisdom teeth have yet to make an appearance, we will monitor them closely, checking their position in your jaw using digital dental x-rays. We prefer to take a wait and see approach, but if it is obvious these teeth cannot erupt without causing problems, we will suggest removing them before you get a wisdom tooth infection due to an impacted tooth.


What to Expect if You Need a Tooth Removed?

Tooth extraction is usually a routine procedure, and if you do need this treatment, we will do everything we can to ensure you feel comfortable. If you need a straightforward tooth extraction, local anaesthetic is usually enough to numb the tooth so we can quickly remove it. You should not feel any pain as the tooth is taken out.

If tooth removal is more complicated, it may require a surgical extraction, for example, if a wisdom tooth is partially or completely hidden in the gum. In this case, we can provide additional sedation if needed, so you feel deeply relaxed or will fall asleep during treatment. The tooth is then removed by making a small opening in the gum and jawbone to expose it. The tooth might be sectioned or cut into smaller pieces before we remove it, so we only need to make a small incision that will heal more quickly and comfortably.


What to Expect After Tooth Extraction?

Healing after tooth extraction should be uneventful and comfortable, and we will provide lots of information on how to care for the surgery site. An infection after tooth extraction only occurs in a tiny percentage of cases. When it does happen, it is very treatable. It could be a condition called dry socket, where the blood clot protecting an empty tooth socket becomes dislodged, allowing the socket to become infected and increasingly painful. In this case, we can clean out the socket so it can heal more easily.


Can I Prevent a Tooth Infection and Tooth Abscess?

Practising good oral hygiene can reduce the risk of developing a tooth infection and gum disease. We much prefer this preventive approach rather than seeing patients in pain or discomfort that could have been avoided.


Preventive Dentistry

Preventive dentistry is not complicated or time-consuming and could save you from pain and avoid spending hours in our dental chair. It is also much more cost-effective.


Regular Professional Dental Care

When you visit a dentist for regular checkups and cleanings, any signs of problems, such as gum disease or small lesions in teeth, are detected and easily treated before they can develop into larger and more troublesome issues. When we can catch dental problems in their early stages, the risk of developing tooth infections and tooth abscesses declines.

Professionally cleaning your teeth removes all the plaque and tartar buildup from teeth, reducing tooth decay and gum disease risks. Dental education is another important factor. When we clean your teeth, we can easily identify areas that need a bit more attention when you brush and floss. Our dental team can discuss how to clean your teeth more effectively and, if needed, can demonstrate different techniques and tools to use.


Taking Care of Your Oral Health at Home

A good oral hygiene routine takes less than ten minutes each day and will help you enjoy optimal oral health between checkups. The routine is extremely straightforward, simply involving brushing your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time. You need the full two minutes to clean all tooth surfaces thoroughly. If you use an electric toothbrush, it will have a built-in timer, but if you prefer a manual brush, be sure to set the timer on your phone or keep a small timer in the bathroom for this purpose. It is very easy to underestimate two minutes! You must floss your teeth once a day because plaque bacteria and food debris can easily become trapped between your teeth, greatly increasing the risk of a tooth infection or gum disease. Flossing is easy once you know how to do it correctly, so be sure to ask us for help if you struggle with this task. We can show you some techniques or other tools to try.

Tooth infections and tooth abscesses are unpleasant and can cause tooth loss but are often preventable with the proper dental care. By working together, we can help you achieve and maintain your best level of oral health.

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At Tandara Dental Centre in Gosnells, we’re happy to discuss all of your care options with you, so that you can choose the one that’s best for your smile. Contact us today to schedule!