What is an abscessed tooth?

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An abscessed tooth is an infection in or around the tooth usually caused by tooth decay.

Did you know your mouth is home to about 700 species of bacteria?¹ While most of them are helpful, there are also several that can cause issues like tooth decay, gum disease or an abscessed tooth. If you brush your teeth regularly and properly, you'll likely be able to remove most teeth and gum-damaging bacteria. However, sometimes the bacteria found in plaque can make its way inside of a tooth and lead to a dental abscess.

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What causes an abscessed tooth?

An abscessed tooth is an infection caused by tooth decay. When bacteria enters the tooth pulp (soft tissue of a tooth), it can cause the pulp to break down and pus to build up at the root tip in the jaw bone, forming a pus pocket called an abscess.² Abscessed teeth are a natural defense mechanism. Our bodies create them to block infection from spreading to other areas of the mouth.³

An abscessed tooth can occur in different regions of the tooth and for different reasons. However, where they are and why they occurred determines what they are called. There are two main types of dental abscesses: periapical and periodontal.⁴

Periapical tooth abscess

A periapical tooth abscess is usually a result of an untreated dental cavity, injury or prior dental work. With this, the tooth abscess originates from the soft pulp of the tooth and exits out the tooth’s apex at the bottom of the root. The infection usually ends up in surrounding tissue, but it's also not uncommon for pus to appear at the gum line of the tooth.⁵

Periodontal tooth abscess

A periodontal abscess affects the bone next to the tooth. It begins in a gum pocket outside of the tooth next to the root and often spreads to the jawbone and surrounding tissue.⁶

What does an abscessed tooth look like?

While not all abscessed teeth are externally visible, there are some things you can look for:⁷

  • Redness and swelling of the gums

  • Swollen area in the upper or lower jaw

  • Swollen lymph nodes

  • An open, draining sore on the side of the gum

What does an abscessed tooth feel like?

An abscessed tooth for many people doesn't cause any pain at all. However, some individuals report the following:⁸

  • Loose tooth

  • Pain when chewing

  • Sensitivity of the teeth to hot or cold

  • Bitter taste in the mouth

  • General discomfort, uneasiness, or ill feeling

Tooth abscess treatment

Clear the infection and drain the abscess

Your dentist will likely begin by prescribing an oral antibiotic to help clear the infection. If the infection is only in the abscessed area, you may not require antibiotics. Your dentist will then open up the abscess so the pus can drain out and swelling can come down. After that, they'll wash the area with saltwater.⁹

Perform a root canal

The next step for tooth abscess treatment involves trying to save your tooth by doing a root canal. During a root canal, your dentist will drill down into your tooth, remove the diseased central tissue, and drain the abscess. They'll then fill and seal the tooth’s pulp chamber and associated root canals. This should protect the tooth from future infections. They may also cap the tooth with a crown for additional support.¹⁰

Remove the tooth

If your tooth cannot be saved or the abscess is on a child's baby tooth, they'll likely pull the affected tooth. This method helps to ensure that the infection doesn't spread elsewhere.

Preventing an abscessed tooth

You can help prevent an abscessed tooth from occurring by taking proper care of your teeth and gums:¹¹

  • Replace your toothbrush regularly

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day

  • Visit your dentist for regular check-ups and professional cleanings

  • Eat a healthy diet and avoid sugary foods and drinks

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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. It is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office. Guardian Direct plans are underwritten and issued by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America New York, N.Y. or its subsidiaries. Products are not available in all states.


  1. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/bacteria-in-your-mouth-can-find-its-way-to-your-brain, 2019

  2. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/a/abscess (Last accessed March 2020) 

  3. https://www.dentaly.org/us/tooth-abscess-information/#What\_does\_an\_abscessed\_tooth\_look\_like, 2020 

  4. https://www.medicinenet.com/abscessed\_tooth\_guide/article.htm#is\_it\_possible\_to\_prevent\_an\_abscessed\_tooth, 2019

  5. https://www.dentaly.org/us/tooth-abscess-information/#What\_does\_an\_abscessed\_tooth\_look\_like, 2020

  6. https://www.dentaly.org/us/tooth-abscess-information/#What\_does\_an\_abscessed\_tooth\_look\_like, 2020

  7. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10943-abscessed-tooth, 2016

  8. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10943-abscessed-tooth, 2016

  9. https://www.healthline.com/health/abscessed-tooth#causes, 2018

  10. https://www.aae.org/patients/dental-symptoms/abscessed-teeth/ (Last accessed March 2020) 

  11. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa119477, 2018


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