One dreaded phrase associated with a tooth abscess is "root canal," and in cases of extreme infections or bone loss, a tooth may even need to be extracted in order to get rid of the abscess and repair the infection site damage. Getting inside a tooth to check the extent of damage and to remove infected pulp is a procedure called a root canal and it's also the name of the canal deep within the tooth. An abscess can be drained, carved out and cleaned, and then sealed and capped to prevent any further damage or pain [sources: AAE; ADA]. Root canals are fairly common for an abscess within the tooth -- called a periapical abscess -- and the prognosis for recovery is good.
In the case of a periodontal abscess, the kind between the teeth and gums, the abscess is purged and the area is well cleaned, but an additional step finishes the treatment. Although the abscess sac and its pus content are dealt with, the bacteria need to be killed, too. Often, this bacteria has spread to the surrounding gums and deep between teeth and a dentist or endodontist will apply and prescribe antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics kill off the infectious bacteria at the site and prevent it from spreading through the bloodstream. A periapical abscess may be treated with antibiotics, as well [source: CUCDM].
If an abscess is only drained and not treated, the pain and soreness in the mouth might ease up, but complications from the bacteria itself can cause jaw cysts and infections, pneumonia, sepsis, heart complications, or a brain abscess among other serious and even life-threatening conditions. Individuals with immune deficiency disorders are even more at risk. As with any medical condition involving antibiotic treatment, it's very important to finish the entire prescription and any in-office cleaning and antibacterial care even after symptoms are gone [source: NIH].
Are there any instances where an abscess is minor enough to treat at home? Won't it eventually just rupture on its own and go away? In a word, no. You can get the abscess out of the mouth, but you cannot get the infection out of the body without treatment. Home prevention and pain relief, however, can help. We'll talk about those next.