Is your toothache a tooth abscess?

Written by: Dr Mark Hughes
Published: | Updated: 28/03/2019
Edited by: Lisa Heffernan

If you’re experiencing a sudden, throbbing pain in your gum, accompanied by swelling, increased pressure and a bad taste in your mouth, you might have an abscess. Abscesses can affect different areas of the mouth, including the teeth, gum tissue and soft tissue around the crown and are caused by a bacterial infection. They can be described as a localisation of pus within the mouth’s tissue.

A gum boil or parulis occurs in the soft tissue of the gum and looks like a small pimple. Gum boils act as drainage points for abscesses that occur at the root of a tooth.                     

Dr Mark Hughes, renowned dentist and founder of Harley Street Dental Studio explains what causes a tooth abscess, who is more likely to get an abscess and what we can all do to avoid one.

Different types of abscesses

There are different types of abscesses. The most common are:

  • Gingival abscesses that stay in the gum and don’t affect the surrounding ligaments. This is caused by gum disease.
  • Periodontal abscesses; these occur due to an infected living tooth. Periodontitis has occurred, when inflammation of the gums or gum disease extends to the ligaments and bone that supports the tooth, leading to the tooth loosening or falling out.
  • Tooth or apical abscesses, caused by tooth decay or trauma that occurs from an infected dead tooth. This abscess starts in the soft pulp of the tooth.

What causes an abscess in the mouth?

There may be many causes of abscesses in the mouth, but the most common is an infection from the inside of a tooth or an infection in the gum and ligament supporting the tooth. Bacteria, often present in plaque can make its way into a tooth and cause infection.

Who is more likely to get an abscess?

Some people are more susceptible to dental diseases than others. For the most part, mouth infections are avoidable and are caused by the long term effects of poor diet or poor oral hygiene. If you do not look after your gums properly, effectively clean your teeth and visit your dentist on a regular basis, you are at a greater risk of developing gum disease or periodontitis.

High sugar consumption is responsible for causing tooth decay, which can ultimately infect the nerves of the teeth causing extreme pain which leads to an abscess. It is important that diabetics tightly control their blood sugar levels as those with diabetes and smokers are at a greater risk of developing periodontitis and gum disease.

When is an abscess a sign of gum disease or oral cancer?

An abscess that is related to gum disease often presents itself on the gum tissue that surrounds the tooth and can feel like a toothache.

Oral cancer is generally not found on the gum tissue surrounding the tooth, but instead on the tongue or cheeks. There are of course exceptions.

Any abscess or gum lesion that doesn’t go away within two weeks should be checked by a dentist immediately.

What tips do you have to avoid an abscess and to keep gums healthy?

  • Brush your teeth twice a day
  • Floss
  • See a dental hygienist every 3 to 4 months to avoid gum disease
  • Follow a low sugar, low carb diet to avoid tooth decay
  • Eat sugary foods less frequently during the day
  • If you play a contact sport, make sure to always wear a gum shield

Take good care of your teeth to avoid infections, gum disease and other complications. If you haven’t seen your dentist in a while, now is the time to schedule an appointment.

By Dr Mark Hughes

Dr Mark Hughes is one of the UK's leading cosmetic dentists, with significant experience and skill in both orthodontics and aesthetic dentistry. He is an Accredited Member of the British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, an extremely prestigious accolade, being one of only 16 dentists in the UK. He is a full member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. Dr Hughes founded the Harley Street Dental Studio in 2004, and went on to become co-founder of the acclaimed Harley Street Dental Group just four years later. His clinics share a vision of offering the latest developments in dentistry and state-of-the-art techniques, to deliver high quality results in orthodontics and cosmetic dentistry. 

Dr Hughes often appears in the media to discuss his techniques and his clinics as a dental advisor, and has worked with a range of celebrities over the years. With placement of over 10,000 dental veneers and successful completion of more than 1,000 Invisalign treatments, Dr Hughes has earned his reputation as a world-class dentist. He is a key opinion leader and brand ambassador for many leading dental companies and also has an interest in training and education, working as a mentor for other dentists, and lectures internationally and around the UK. 

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