Swelling or Abscess

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When you understand HOW and WHY things happen, your actions for treatment and prevention are vastly improved.

If you just want to know WHAT ACTIONS TO TAKE, scroll down.

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Emergencies - Potential causesAn abscess is a collection of pus that builds up in a local area, usually in response to a bacterial infection. Pus is a buildup of bacteria, dead cells, fluids, and white blood cells from immune system trying to fight off the invasion of your body.

Dental abscesses are usually caused from:
  • An infection of the center part of the tooth (pulp chamber) due to a cavity or crack in the tooth that allows bacteria in.
  • An infection of the gums associated with gum disease
  • An infection of the bone from trauma or either of the above
  • Occasionally an infection of the sinuses of the upper jaws that may affect the upper back teeth

Emergencies - Symptoms

Any or all of these symptoms may exist.
  • Swelling visible either inside the mouth or outside on the face. This usually comes up in a matter of hours or a day or two – NOT WEEKS. They can come on extremely quickly in younger children.
  • Throbbing due to pressure buildup causing one to feel the heart beat.
  • Pain varies from mild to severe. It is due to pressure buildup from swelling. May be throbbing or constant, usually increasing until treatment is received.
  • Bite feels like it changed due to teeth being pushed slightly out of alignment from the swelling. This is temporary if the abscess is treated early.
  • Bad breath worse than morning breath.
  • Sour taste in mouth.
  • Pus drainage.
  • Occasionally there is little to no pain, so don’t let the lack of pain fool you.

Emergencies - Relieve pain

Here are things you can try while you’re waiting to get professional treatment.
  • Over the counter anti-inflammatory pain medicines, but NOT ASPIRIN. Typically acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used. These are to be swallowed only.
  • Ice packs on the face if swelling is external. Frozen vegetables like peas or corn make a good pliable ice pack. Wrap in a small thin towel (even a paper towel) before applying directly to skin in order to prevent freezer burn to the skin.
  • Ice water to sip if swelling is inside the mouth. Only do this if it relieves abscess pain and does not cause teeth to be sensitive.
  • Salt water rinse (half teaspoon salt dissolved in one cup warm water). You may want to use no more than body-temperature water to avoid adding heat to the abscess which can increase pain. If there is pus in the mouth, this can help clean the mouth and get rid of the horrible taste too.
  • Do not put over the counter anti-inflammatory pain medicines directly on teeth or gums. Some have acids in them that can burn the tissues. These are meant to be swallowed only.
  • Do not cut into the abscess to relieve the pressure yourself. Beneath the skin or lining inside the mouth are arteries, veins, and nerves. Accidental cutting (if you don’t know where they are) can cause life-threatening bleeding or permanent nerve damage.
  • Do not use hot packs as these will likely increase the pain and throbbing.

Emergencies - What to do

DO NOT PANIC. Your child’s state of mind depends on you being a cool, calm, and collected parent.

  • Contact your child’s dentist right away. She or he may help you determine if you should bring your child in right away. They may prescribe antibiotics. Standard treatment before antibiotics became available was to open the abscess and drain the pus. This is still commonly done in addition to prescribing antibiotics, but it’s not always needed. That is why it’s very important that you see a dentist so she or he can make that determination.
  • Follow the suggestions to Relieve Pain (above) until you can get to a dental professional.
  • If swelling is severe, an abscess can become life-threatening. This is one situation that if you can’t contact a dentist fairly quickly, you may want to consider taking your child to an Urgent Care Center or Emergency Room. But remember, keep calm about it for the sake of your child.

Call 911 in case of emergencyA severe abscess is one of the few true dental emergencies. Because they can grow very rapidly, they can potentially become life-threatening, although this is not common. Swelling that may block off the airway or spread to the brain requires IMMEDIATE ATTENTION. If you suspect this, call 911 immediately, but keep calm for the sake of your child.


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NOTE: Any recommendations given can only be construed as general information. It is impossible for me to know your specific circumstances. I am not your family’s personal dentist. This material should NOT be used to diagnose the presence or absence of any particular ailment. This information is not intended to be a substitute for the services of a locally qualified dental health care professional. Any application of the material found on this website is at the reader’s discretion and is her or his sole responsibility. If there is any question, contact your dentist or other qualified dental health care professional.
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