Some kids may complain of a toothache, others a bad taste in their mouth, or a bump on their gums. Any of these symptoms could indicate that your child has an abscessed tooth. An abscessed tooth is considered a dental emergency, but the good news is that it can be treated completely and can also be prevented.
What is an abscessed tooth?
An abscessed tooth occurs when the dental pulp, or nerve, within the tooth and its surrounding tissue gets infected. This is common when a dental cavity is left untreated, allowing bacteria to spread into the area inside and around the tooth. When it happens in small children, it needs to be treated right away, as their immune systems are not yet fully developed which could make it difficult to fight the infection (1). If left untreated, an abscessed tooth can become very dangerous as the bacterial infection may spread into the jaw, head, or throughout the body (2) causing a potentially life-threatening condition called sepsis.
Signs and symptoms
While some children may not feel any discomfort, a dental abscess may be quite painful for others, with *visible symptoms such as facial swelling and redness as well as an accompanying fever. There may also be swelling in the neck or jaw areas. In addition, parents may notice a darkening or discoloration of infected teeth or possibly bad breath in the child’s mouth. Swollen lymph nodes or a small, white pimple-like nodule on the gums may also become evident.
Children may complain of throbbing pain in the abscessed region, having trouble chewing in that area, pus draining from the area, and a bad or bitter taste in their mouths even during times they aren’t eating or drinking anything. Vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and a new sensitivity to hot or cold foods are less common symptoms. Appetites may be diminished in children with abscessed teeth, from which weight loss may eventually be observed.
*Although visible symptoms may be present, they may not always be observed without a parent looking closely. If you suspect something may be wrong, check for swelling and other signs of abscess right away so treatment may be sought promptly if necessary.
How an abscessed tooth is diagnosed
An abscess is an infection that reaches into the pulp chamber of the tooth, which is made up of nerves and blood vessels. It then grows and spreads as an accumulation of pus (i.e. white blood cells, bacteria, and tissue debris) throughout the surrounding region.
Sometimes, we can see that a child has an abscessed tooth just by looking at it. Other times, to officially determine whether a child has an abscessed tooth, an x-ray may be necessary. They allow us to see areas that are not visible to the eye and help determine whether your child has an abscessed tooth or not. X-rays will also help us determine the extent of the abscess. At Jungle Roots, we use digital x-rays, which expose children to less radiation than conventional x-rays.
What causes an abscessed tooth?
Typically an untreated cavity leads to an abscessed tooth, although other dental issues can as well. Poor dental hygiene, a high intake of sugary snacks and/or beverages, and trauma to the tooth from an injury (causing chipping of the enamel or other damage) can all potentially contribute to the abscess of a child’s tooth. The inner pulp of the tooth, a combination of blood vessels, tissues, and nerves, can be infected through a cracked tooth, or from gum disease.
How to treat an abscessed tooth in pediatric dentistry
Once diagnosed, an abscess on a baby tooth will be handled differently than an abscess on a permanent tooth.
For baby teeth, extraction will probably be necessary, as well as drainage of the abscess. Jungle Roots offers a Pulp and Crown treatment, also referred to as a pulpectomy, pulpotomy, nerve treatment, pulp therapy, or “baby root canal therapy”. This involves treating the nerve to restore and save the tooth and preserve the nerve structure. A restorative crown is placed on the tooth once this treatment is completed, and holds the structure in place until the permanent tooth comes in.
For permanent teeth, drainage and a root canal are typically in order, ending with a crown and some antibiotics to kill the infection. In some cases, when dental infections are potentially life-threatening, surgical treatment is recommended. (3)
How can someone prevent an abscessed tooth?
Proper oral hygiene is essential to prevent cavities since untreated cavities are what most often leads to abscessed teeth in the first place. Parents are encouraged to assist their children in following the oral hygiene regimen.
Usually this regimen involves:
Floss daily with dental floss
Eat a healthy, balanced diet with reduced sugar intake and healthy sweet foods
Limit sugary snacks, between-meal snacks, fruit juice, and sugary drinks to special occasions
Replace sugary snacks with raw vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts, or seeds
Keep up with visits to the dentist for check-ups every six months, as well as any recommended teeth cleanings, x-rays, and other exams and treatments. If your child’s dentist notices a cavity, be sure to keep the appointment to repair it right away. (4)
When deciding upon snacks for your children, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) recommends parents consider the following:
Whether the snack food is sticky or chewy. This is important because it stays on the teeth longer.
How long will the food remain in the child’s mouth? (Is it a piece of licorice or hard candy?)
How often will the child be consuming this snack product? (If it’s rare, it’s less damaging than if consumed daily or multiple times per day.)
Always choose snacks that allow minimal time for sugar to remain on the teeth. Remember, foods like pretzels, juice, applesauce, or yogurt can be a source of hidden sugar.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of abscessed teeth, you should have a better idea about their typical causes, common ways they are diagnosed, best methods of prevention, and treatment options. If you think your child may have an abscessed tooth, be sure to call us right away to schedule an appointment. Even if you don’t suspect an abscess, don’t forget to discuss your child’s oral hygiene routine and eating/drinking habits during your next appointment with us. This information can help to make sure their habits are in line with maintaining the healthiest possible teeth and smile. We look forward to seeing and hearing from you!
At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.
Call Us at (480) 759-1119
1. Simon, A. Katharina, Hollander, Georg A., & McMichael, Andrew. (2015). Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age. The Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Vol. 282. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.3085
2. Prakash, Shweta & Prakash, S. Krishna. (2013). Dental abscess: A microbiological review. Dental Research Journal, Sept-Oct, 10 (5): 585-591.
3. Robertson, D.P, Keys, W., Rautemaa-Richardson, R., Burns, R., & Smith, A.J. (2015). Management of severe acute dental infections. British Medical Journal. 350 :h1300.
4. National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/childrens-oral-health/tooth-decay-process
5. “Tooth Decay (Dental Caries) Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment.” National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/tooth-decay/more-info?_ga=2.65727527.886105155.1589408283-163089794.1589304528.