Infections happen when bacteria multiply and spread toxins or chemicals through the body or part of the body. That pus we talked about earlier is made up of lots of living and multiplying bacteria, decomposed tissue and a rush of blood. The blood part is likely filled with white blood cells, or leukocytes, that the body sends to the site of an infection to fight it. When an infection is present in the body, one of the first signs is redness and inflammation, showing that blood has rushed to the scene of the germ or bacterial onslaught to stand up to it and keep it contained. This swelling brought on by the activity of the white blood cells helps get rid of the bacteria, but it also causes pain by stretching tissues, adding pressure to the site and adding a throbbing sensation [source: NIH].
With a tooth abscess, sometimes the pulp inside a tooth has already died due to the bacterial infection and the pain has stopped, and then an abscess forms. So, although pain is an indicator in most cases, an abscess may form without any pain until it has advanced for some time. Painful or not, signs of an abscess and related infection can include:
- a throbbing toothache or gum pain that won't go away
- darting pains when biting down or chewing
- unexpected and random shooting tooth pains
- hot and cold tooth or root sensitivity
- swollen, sore and/or red gums
- persistent bad breath
- feeling of fluid leaking into the mouth that gives you a bad taste or very offensive breath smell, particularly around certain teeth
- tender or swollen glands around the neck and jaw
- oozing sores on the gums
- cheek or facial puffiness or swelling
- fever and a general feeling of being under the weather or sick [sources: Alan; Mayo Clinic; NIH]
Because an abscess is often an infection in the middle of a tooth, there aren't always visible signs, but there will likely be taste, smell and sensitivity issues that warrant a trip to the dentist. A dentist or endodontist will examine by tapping teeth and probing gums and by looking for hot spots of pain, pressure or leakage. X-rays may help to assess any damage to bones or surrounding gum tissues. An injury to the mouth and teeth is one obvious reason to check for an abscess that may have formed through cracked enamel, but other indicators are built up tartar around the roots of teeth, gum disease, and broken fillings, crowns or other dental work. All of these are signs that oral hygiene may not be up to par or has suffered. Sometimes, however, the cause can even be a trapped particle of food between teeth and gums [sources: Alan; NIH].
Signs of serious infection include sharp, deep pain and facial swelling and you should get to a dentist right away -- or to an emergency room if after office hours. Abscess infections can spread throughout the bloodstream and body quickly, leading to sickness and even death if untreated [sources: Alan; Mayo Clinic].
Death by toothache? No, but the associated infections can make you sick, or worse. Most often, however, you can fight them long before they spread throughout the body. How? We'll take a look, next.