An untreated tooth infection can spread to other tissues in your body within weeks or months and lead to potentially life threatening complications. While rare, it is possible for a tooth infection to kill you.
A tooth infection can happen when bacteria enter the nerve or soft tissue of the tooth, called the pulp. This can occur from tooth decay, injury, or previous dental procedures.
Below, we’ll cover how a tooth infection can lead to death, how long it may take, and when to get to a hospital.
A tooth infection occurs when bacteria enter the inside of your tooth, which contains a soft tissue called pulp. As the infection progresses, a pocket of pus builds up around the affected tooth. This is known as a dental abscess.
In London during the 1600s, dental infections
Due to advances in medicine and dental hygiene, death from a tooth infection is now extremely rare. However, it’s still important to seek prompt care if you suspect that you have an infected tooth.
When left untreated, a tooth infection can spread to other areas of the body, leading to serious, potentially life-threatening complications, including:
- sepsis: a severe reaction by the body in response to the infection
- Ludwig’s angina: a serious bacterial infection that affects the floor of the mouth, underneath the tongue
- necrotizing fasciitis: a severe infection that leads to soft tissue death in the body
- mediastinitis: an inflammation of the mediastinum, which is a space located between your lungs
- endocarditis: an inflammation of your heart’s inner lining, called the endocardium
- cavernous sinus thrombosis: a dangerous blood clot of the sinuses, just under the brain and behind the eyes
- osteomyelitis: a bone tissue infection
- brain abscess: a collection of pus that can form in the brain
The amount of time it takes for a tooth infection to cause death can vary. We’ll break this question down in more detail.
How long does it take for an abscess to develop?
Abscesses due to tooth decay can take several months to develop. This is because the decay process can take a while to reach and damage the pulp at the center of a tooth.
Meanwhile, injury or trauma to a tooth may allow bacteria to enter the tooth more quickly. This can happen due to injuries like a cracked or chipped tooth.
What happens once an abscess develops?
Once an abscess has formed, you typically begin to experience swelling and intermittent, throbbing pain around the affected tooth. This is a warning sign that something is wrong. However, you will probably have dental pain in your tooth from the cavity before it progresses into an abscess.
Case studies of serious illness or death from tooth infections often
In many case studies, the toothaches were treated with antibiotics during this timeframe. However, antibiotics alone aren’t typically effective for treating a dental abscess. The tooth decay needs to be treated, too, either with an extraction or root canal if your tooth is salvageable.
When a dental abscess remains untreated for weeks or months, it may spread to other areas like the jaw, neck, and brain. This can cause serious symptoms like trouble swallowing, difficulty breathing, and an inability to open your mouth.
At this point, if care isn’t received, death can occur quickly, sometimes in a matter of days.
What risk factors can lead to complications from an abscess?
There are several risk factors that can increase your chances of having complications from a dental abscess, including:
- older age
- having diabetes
- being immunocompromised
- experiencing malnourishment
- It can potentially take several months for a dental abscess to develop.
- Once an abscess has formed, noticeable pain and swelling around the affected tooth usually occur.
- If left untreated, it may take a few more weeks or months for the infection to spread to other tissues and cause complications. However, once this has happened, death can occur quickly.
- Factors like older age, having diabetes, or being immunocompromised can increase your risk of complications from a dental abscess.
Overall, these facts underline the importance of seeking prompt medical care if you’re experiencing persistent pain or swelling around a tooth. When treated early, most tooth infections can be resolved without serious complications.
A tooth infection won’t go away on its own. It requires timely treatment so the infection doesn’t spread.
See a dentist if you notice symptoms like:
- throbbing pain in the area of the affected tooth
- gums that are red and swollen
- a persistent bad taste in your mouth
- bad breath
- discoloration of the affected tooth
- tooth sensitivity, either due to pressure or exposure to hot and cold
Some symptoms can signal that a tooth infection has become serious. Visit an urgent care center or the emergency room if you develop additional symptoms like:
- a general feeling of unwellness (malaise)
- swollen lymph nodes
- nausea or vomiting
- swelling around your face, neck, or eyes
- inability to open your mouth or jaw (trismus)
- trouble speaking, chewing, or swallowing
- difficulty breathing
- rapid heart rate
Go with your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to seek care. Even if your symptoms aren’t due to a tooth infection, they may be caused by another health condition that requires immediate treatment.
Treatment options for a tooth infection include:
- Drainage. A dentist will make a small incision in your gums to drain the abscess. However, this is typically used as a temporary measure, and further treatments are often needed.
- Root canal. During a root canal, the infected pulp is removed from the tooth. The inside of the tooth is carefully cleaned and filled. A crown is then placed to help restore the tooth.
- Tooth extraction. In situations when an infected tooth cannot be saved through a root canal, it may be extracted instead.
- Antibiotics. Antibiotics are drugs that can kill bacteria. They’re sometimes used to treat tooth infections. Depending on the severity of your infection, you may receive oral antibiotics or intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Your tooth will also need a root canal or extraction along with the antibiotics.
Can home remedies help treat a tooth infection?
While waiting to receive treatment, you can try the following home remedies to help ease symptoms:
- Try over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Eat soft foods, and try to chew on the opposite side of your mouth from where the infection is located.
- Avoid foods and drinks that may irritate the infected tooth, such as those that are:
- very hot or very cold
- hard or crunchy
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to clean your teeth and avoid flossing around the affected tooth.
- Rinse your mouth with a saltwater or hydrogen peroxide rinse to alleviate pain and swelling.
- Place a cold compress near the affected area to ease pain and swelling.
- Apply garlic, which has antimicrobial properties, to the affected tooth.
The home remedies above are only for use when you’re awaiting medical attention for your tooth infection. They shouldn’t be used as a substitute for seeking treatment.
Preventing a tooth infection
There are several things that you can do in your daily life to help prevent a tooth infection from occurring. Examples include:
- brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste twice each day
- flossing between your teeth each day
- reducing your intake of sugary or starchy foods and drinks
- scheduling regular dental cleanings and exams
- seeing a dentist promptly following any tooth pain or injury, such as a chip or crack
It’s possible for a tooth infection to lead to serious or potentially life-threatening complications. Some examples include sepsis, Ludwig’s angina, and cavernous sinus thrombosis.
If a tooth infection goes untreated, it can spread to other areas of the body over a period of weeks or months. This can cause serious symptoms like fever, difficulty breathing, or trouble swallowing. Death can occur quickly without immediate care.
When a tooth infection happens, you’ll feel pain and notice swelling around the affected tooth. This is a signal to make an appointment with a dentist for an exam. Many tooth infections can be treated effectively via root canal or extraction.