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!

Anatomy and Treatment of an Abscessed Tooth

Yep, your tooth can get infected and fill up with pus.
Yep, your tooth can get infected and fill up with pus.

By definition, an abscess is a localized collection of yellowish-white fluid (pus, comprised of white blood cells, tissue and microorganisms) surrounded by inflamed tissue. In other words, it's a type of infection. Writers often describe infected wounds or boils as "suppurating" or "festering." Imagine having such a condition in your mouth!

A tooth abscess is most commonly caused by severe tooth decay (cavities). Other culprits are gingivitis (gum disease) and trauma to the teeth (breaks and chips). An abscess starts when openings in the tooth enamel allow bacteria to travel to and infect the pulpy center of the tooth. In severe cases, the infection can affect the jawbone as well as the soft tissue in the mouth. These conditions are called osteomyelitis and cellulitis, respectively. Left untreated, infection from an abscessed tooth can even spread to other parts of the body and cause abscesses in the brain, heart infections, pneumonia and other complications [source: WebMD].

The main hallmark of an abscessed tooth is a painfully throbbing or stabbing toothache. It will sometimes be accompanied by a bitter taste in the mouth, bad breath, swollen glands, swelling and fever. Paradoxically, as the infection spreads and worsens, it may kill the root of the tooth and the toothache may go away or subside. So, if you have had a bad toothache, even if it subsides, you should still see a dentist. Treatment of abscessed teeth involves draining the infection (through a root canal, incision into the gum tissue or tooth extraction). Dentists usually also prescribe a course of antibiotics to fight any lingering infection.

To reduce the risk of developing abscessed teeth, follow the advice of Flash Fluoride and the rest of the Toothbrush Family gang: "Brush your teeth, round and round/Circles small, gums and all..." If, in spite of good oral hygiene, you find yourself praying to St. Apollonia and reciting the poetry of Robert Burns to deal with your tooth pain, be sure to consult your dentist right away.

Find resources from the American Dental Association and more great links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links:


  • Burns, Robert. "Address To the Toothache." Robertburns.org. 1786. (Sept. 20, 2011) http://www.robertburns.org/works/138.shtml
  • Clarke, JH. "Toothaches and Death." National Library of Medicine. March, 1999. (Sept. 20, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10686905
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Oral Health." July 20, 2011. (Sept. 20, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/AAG/doh.htm
  • Otto, Mary. "For Want of a Dentist." The Washington Post. Feb. 28, 2007. (Sept. 20, 2011.) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/27/AR2007022702116.html
  • Rosenberg, Jack D. "Tooth Abscess." National Library of Medicine. Feb. 2, 2010. (Sept. 20, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001060.htm
  • Tonn, Elverne M. "Dental Health and the Abscessed Tooth." WebMD. Sept. 17, 2009. (Sept. 20, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/abscessed-tooth