What is an abscessed tooth?

Robert Burns and this lady are NOT fans of toothaches.
Robert Burns and this lady are NOT fans of toothaches.

Once among the world's most vexing health problems, a toothache hardly even bears mentioning these days. However, that wasn't always the case. In the early 1600s, "teeth" were often cited as a leading cause of death [source: Clarke]. Catholic toothache-sufferers prayed to St. Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists, for intercession on behalf of their aching mouths. In fact, dental problems were so common among our forbearers that in 1786, Scottish poet Robert Burns immortalized the condition in his "Address to the Toothache" [source: Burns]:

…Where'er that place be priests ca' hell, Where a' the tones o' misery yell, An' ranked plagues their numbers tell, In dreadfu' raw, Thou, Toothache, sure bear'st the bell, Amang them a'!...

Thanks to polices like widespread water fluoridation in the U.S., educational cartoons like 1974's "The Toothbrush Family," oral hygiene programs in public schools and easy access to dental products, overall dental health in the United States has vastly improved. Nevertheless, tooth decay is still cited as the most common childhood disease; 50 percent of children aged 12-15 are affected by cavities. The problem is often worse for certain racial and ethnic groups and lower-income families, who are less likely to have affordable access to dental care [source: CDC].

People today tend to be cavalier about tooth decay, dismissing cavities and minor toothaches as insignificant. However, even with modern improvements in dentistry, cavities can still lead to oral infections and more serious complications, including death. In 1979, John Glascock, bassist for the rock band Jethro Tull, died of endocarditis, a heart infection his doctors believe originated from an abscessed tooth. Recent studies have also linked oral infections to other serious medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke [source: CDC].

So, what exactly is an abscessed tooth, and how can you avoid getting one? Find out on the next page!