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.