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.

You can break, chip, or fracture a tooth in both dramatic and mundane ways. The damage may be the result of an extreme sports mishap, or it could just as easily happen while crunching contentedly on ice. Spectators and athletes are both at risk.

Fortunately, modern dentists know how to deal with this common, sometimes uncommonly painful, problem. From filling and bonding to crowns, veneers, and root canals, your dentist has a full arsenal of possible responses ready to deploy in your defense.

Chipped tooth repair

How a dentist repairs a chipped or broken tooth depends on how bad the damage is. The length of time she’ll need to make a thorough repair also varies based on the injury. In cases with only minor harm, repair may be done in just one office visit. Injuries that are more extensive may mean more than one visit, though.

Here’s a brief overview of the chief ways your dentist may fix a chipped, fractured, or broken tooth:


Most people think of a filling as work that’s done to repair tooth decay. While that is often the case, when a small amount of tooth is lost, a filling may be used to rebuild the tooth to its original shape.

…when a small amount of tooth is lost, a filling may be used to rebuild the tooth to its original shape…

Fillings most often require only one trip to the dentist. Depending on the site of the tooth and other factors, the dentist will use either an amalgam (metallic looking) or a composite (white to match the tooth surface) filling. When it hardens, the filling helps to support the rest of the tooth.


Bonding is a type of work in which a dentist applies a special plastic resin that is matched to the damaged tooth’s natural color. The resin is first applied to the tooth and sculpted. Then, it’s “cured” using a unique ultraviolet light or laser, which bonds the resin to the tooth.

Compared to veneers and crowns, which involve time-consuming and more costly lab work, bonding is relatively easy and inexpensive. The bonding procedure can most often be done in under an hour.

Dental Veneers

A cosmetic dentistry fix, dental veneers are shells of porcelain or resin composite material tailored to cover problem areas. This type of repair typically blends in with existing teeth.

Veneers are considered stronger and more natural looking than bonding. The procedure results in less removal of the original tooth than is required for crowns, but may take as many as three trips to the dentist.


Close up of a dental technician

Some repairs involve a multi-step process.

Dental crowns (or “caps”) are used to stabilize and maintain the normal look of a tooth. A crown provides a protective layer and allows the repaired tooth to resume normal functioning. They are most often used when a tooth has been damaged so much that a dental filling would not work.

Crowns involve a multi-step procedure. First, a temporary crown is placed over the tooth while the permanent crown is made. When the permanent crown is ready, the dentist extracts the temporary crown and cements the permanent one in place. The permanent crown may need to be altered to provide a comfortable fit, and that may mean a third visit to the dentist.

Root Canal

When tooth damage leads to an infection or inflammation of the pulp, a “root canal” may be called for. Root canals may be done by a dentist or by a dental specialist called an endodontist.

A crown provides a protective layer and allows the repaired tooth to resume normal functioning.

This work begins with the extraction of the damaged tooth’s pulp. Next, the tooth is cleaned and shaped, and the root canal is sealed. After root canal work, the dentist may attach a crown or perform another type of restoration to the treated tooth.

To learn more about these and other dental terms and procedures, visit the Online Resources area.

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