An abscessed tooth is a pocket of pus that can form in different parts of a tooth as a result of a bacterial infection. It’s sometimes called a dental abscess. An abscessed tooth causes moderate to severe pain that can sometimes radiate to your ear or neck.

Left untreated, an abscessed tooth can turn into a serious, life-threatening condition. Read on to learn more about the different types and how to recognize them.

The different types of dental abscesses depend on location.

The three most common types are:

  • Periapical abscess. This is an abscess at the tip of a tooth’s root.
  • Periodontal abscess. This is an abscess on the gum next to the root of a tooth. It might also spread to the surrounding tissue and bone.
  • Gingival abscess. This is an abscess on the gums.

The main symptom of an abscessed tooth is throbbing pain near a tooth or in your gums. The pain usually comes on suddenly and gets worse over time.

Other symptoms include:

If an abscess ruptures, you’ll feel almost immediate pain relief. You might also notice a sudden bad taste in your mouth as the pus drains out.

Bacteria getting into your teeth or gums leads to a dental abscess. However, the way this happens depends on the type of abscess:

  • Periapical abscess. Bacteria enter the pulp within your teeth, usually through a cavity. Pulp refers to the soft, inner part of your tooth. This is made up of nerves, connective tissue, and blood vessels.
  • Periodontal abscess. Gum disease usually causes this type, but it can also be the result of an injury.
  • Gingival abscess. A foreign body, such as a popcorn hull or toothbrush bristle, gets embedded in your gums.

Treatment for an abscessed tooth focuses on clearing up the infection and relieving pain. Depending on your symptoms, your dentist might start with a dental X-ray. This will help them see whether the infection has spread to other areas.

Depending on the type and severity of your abscess, treatment options include:

  • Draining the abscess. Your dentist will make a small cut in the abscess to drain the pus. They’ll follow up by cleaning the area with a saline solution.
  • A root canal procedure. A root canal involves drilling into the affected tooth to drain the abscess and remove any infected pulp. Next, your dentist will fill and seal the pulp chamber, which holds pulp, and the root canal. They may also cap your tooth with a crown to strengthen it. A crown procedure is usually done during a separate appointment.
  • Tooth extraction. If your tooth is too damaged, your dentist might remove it before draining the abscess. Your dentist may pull the tooth if it can’t be saved and then drain the abscess.
  • Antibiotics. If the infection has spread beyond the abscessed area or you have a weakened immune system, your dentist might prescribe oral antibiotics to help clear the infection.
  • Removal of foreign object. If your abscess is caused by a foreign object in your gums, your dentist will remove it. They’ll finish up by cleaning the area with a saline solution.

If you can’t get in to see your dentist right away, you can take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) to help with the pain. Ringing your mouth with warm salt water may also help.

It’s important to have any abscessed tooth treated by a dentist. Even if it’s already ruptured, you’ll want to have the area examined and cleaned by your doctor to make sure the infection doesn’t spread.

Left untreated, an infection can spread to your jaw and other parts of your head and neck, including your brain. In rare cases, it can even lead to sepsis. This is a life-threatening complication of an infection.

Go to the emergency room if you have an abscessed tooth accompanied by:

  • high fever
  • facial swelling
  • difficulty swallowing
  • rapid heart rate
  • confusion

These are all signs of a serious infection that needs immediate treatment.

An abscessed tooth should clear up within a few days of treatment. Even if it seems to drain on its own, it’s important to follow up with your dentist to make sure the infection doesn’t spread to another area.

You can reduce your risk of an abscessed tooth by practicing good oral hygiene and having regular dental checkups every six months.