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Serious Tooth Infections

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The pain from a toothache can be debilitating, and it's usually an indication of a deeper issue such as tooth infection. Understand the usual causes of an infected tooth and how to manage toothache pain with the help of your dentist.

Signs and symptoms

A sore or throbbing tooth is a sign of an underlying problem. Left untreated, decay can progress to a stage where the pulp of the tooth becomes irreversibly inflamed and infected. So what may have been an uncomplicated issue to manage can become a painful condition, which may be associated with swelling and a high fever that indicates that your body is attempting to fight the infection. When your tooth is infected, you might notice a foul taste in your mouth or bad breath that won't go away with brushing or rinsing with a mouthwash. In some cases, you may notice you have a broken tooth, but teeth can be infected without any outward signs.

Some signs that a minor cavity has progressed to an infection include:

  • Throbbing pain in the tooth, jawbone or neck
  • Swelling in the cheek
  • Exaggerated response to heat or coldness
  • Pressure-related sensitivity
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

The Mayo Clinic warns that if you have both a fever and swelling or you have trouble breathing or swallowing, you should seek medical attention immediately. This is a sign of a severe infection that may have spread into your jawbone and surrounding areas. If possible, contact your dentist for an emergency appointment or ask your regular dentist for a referral to a dentist who can see you immediately if they are booked that day. If you have fever or swelling of your face, seek attention at the emergency department.

Causes of tooth infections

The Health Direct Australia warns that tooth abscesses are commonly the result of untreated tooth decay or a cracked tooth. When bacteria penetrate through the enamel and dentine, they can infect the nerves in the pulp tissue of the tooth, which may result in a dental abscess. Abscessed teeth require treatment from your dentist immediately, and the longer you wait to seek treatment, the more complicated the infection may become. In some cases, the infection can actually reach the jawbone and may result in the need for extensive oral surgery, so it's important to call for an appointment as soon as you suspect a possible infection.

Treatment options

Your dentist will need to clean out the infection before repairing the tooth in a process called root canal therapy - the Health Direct Australia has information on the procedure. Root canal therapy requires drilling of the tooth to reach the infected area; the infectioned pulp tissue is removed; and the canal is cleaned and prepared for filling. Root canal therapy can be minor or major, partly due to how long the infection has been active. Your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Following root canal therapy, your dentist may recommend a crown to protect the tooth.


No one wants to deal with the pain and disruption a tooth infection can cause, which is why prevention is such an important part of your dental care plan. Broken teeth can't always be avoided, but cavities can be. Brush at least twice per day with a fluoride toothpaste and see your dentist for regular check-ups. Your dentist can use X-rays to diagnose potential cavities and weak spots and can address minor issues before they progress to become painful infections.

Don't let a full-scale infection disrupt your life. If you notice that tell-tale sign of a toothache, it's best to seek treatment and take care of the issue promptly, or you could risk the infection worsening. Practise good oral hygiene habits, which will help to protect your smile from decay, that is typically responsible for painful infections.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.