Dental Abscesses 101

If you think flossing your teeth regularly is a pain, prison lawsuits highlight the problems that can arise when you skimp on flossing.

Inmates filed suits against the Palm Beach County Jail in Florida and the Westchester County Jail in New York because they did not have access to dental floss. The lack of floss, one inmate stated, resulted in “oral abscesses, pain, discomfort, tooth decay (loss), and could contribute to endocarditis.” [“Jail inmate goes beyond oral arguments in fight for right to floss,” The Palm Beach Post.]

Of course, not flossing your teeth won’t land you in prison, but it’s a fact that skipping the dental floss truly can be a serious offense when it comes to oral health.

What is a dental abscess?

dental abscesses concept

Skipping dental floss can be a serious offense.

Let’s look at one of the problems cited by litigious inmates: dental abscesses. A dental abscess is a pocket of tissue inside the mouth or throat that is filled with pus.

The pus is the result of a bacterial infection. Bacteria typically get into teeth through a chip or crack, due to tooth decay, or as a result of periodontal disease.

Bacterial infections may also be the result of a cavity that has been left untreated. The symptoms of dental abscesses include extreme throbbing and relentless toothache-like pain, swelling, tenderness, sensitivity to heat and cold, and redness.

The lymph nodes in the neck may become swollen when a dental abscess is present. Chills, diarrhea, fever, nausea, sweating, and vomiting may also accompany acute cases.

Complications and consequences of dental abscesses

Whether you believe inmates should have access to floss or not, the jury is unanimous on one point: the consequences of leaving a dental abscess untreated can be deadly. Dangerous and sometimes life-threatening complications can result if a dental abscess is not treated properly. In some very advanced cases, immediate hospitalization may even be necessary.

Swelling related to an abscess can perforate bone. The pressure from an untreated abscess can block airways and make it hard to breathe. When related to upper teeth, dental abscesses may lead to blood infection, a condition called septicemia. Extremely rare complications include brain abscesses and meningitis.

…even in cases where an abscess spontaneously drains or releases the stored up pus, the infection will not go away without proper treatment and care.

While an abscess may drain without intervention, if left untreated the bacteria may spread to the jaw, to other parts of the head, neck, and chest, or throughout the entire body through a condition known as sepsis. It is important to note that, even in cases where an abscess spontaneously drains or releases the stored up pus, the infection will not go away without proper treatment and care.

Who’s at risk for dental abscesses, and why?

Several factors can put a person at greater risk for developing a tooth abscess. The risk of developing dental abscesses is obviously greater in people who do not take proper care of their teeth. Diet also plays an important role in dental health, and consuming too much sugar is known to promote cavities, which can progress to form dental abscesses in some cases.

In addition, complications from abscesses can spread more easily in people with underlying health issues and weakened immune systems. People with HIV/AIDS, diabetes, or any medical condition that makes it more difficult for the body to stay healthy are at greater risk, generally speaking.

When to seek professional care

Considering the life threatening nature of dental abscesses, it is important to seek professional care if you have any of the symptoms related to dental abscesses:

  • If you suspect you or someone you know has an abscess, call your dentist right away
  • If you cannot reach your dentist, or if you are experiencing advanced symptoms such as fever, nausea, or vomiting, an emergency room should be your first stop

Treatments and medications for dental abscesses

In order to eradicate the infection the abscess must be drained. Abscesses sometimes rupture or drain on their own, or they may be drained by a doctor or dentist.

Treatment typically includes prescription pain killers and may include the use of antibiotics, especially where a weakened immune system is present. Tooth extraction is sometimes necessary, but a root canal may be performed to wipe out the infection and attempt to save the tooth.

Treatment typically includes prescription pain killers and may include the use of antibiotics…

To treat pain related to a dental abscess at home — either before seeing the dentist or doctor or after receiving treatment — over-the-counter pain relievers may be used. Ice packs can be applied to the swelling for a few minutes on and off. In addition, if an abscess drains on its own or is drained by a professional, rinsing the mouth with lukewarm water can help.

Preventing dental abscesses

Chances are you’ve never had a dental abscess. But, are you doing everything you need to do to make sure it stays that way? When it comes to anything as potentially life-threatening as dental abscesses, an ounce of prevention makes a ton of sense.

Maintaining good oral alth and preventing dental abscesses and tooth decay requires a daily regimen of brushing and flossing. To help ensure that tooth decay is exposed early and advanced problems such as dental abscesses are avoided entirely, be sure to have regular professional cleanings and dental checkups. Finally, drinking water that has been fluoridated and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet play important roles in maintaining overall dental health.

Chances are, you’ll never have a dental abscess. But then, no one’s challenging your right to floss. And only you can challenge yourself to do all you can to protect your teeth.

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