Tooth Abscess Warning Signs: What You Need to Know

A tooth abscess is a serious infection caused by bacteria. While a tooth abscess often isn’t visible, you’ll likely have signs of an infection if you know what to look for. If you have any symptoms associated with a tooth abscess, you should see your dentist immediately.

What are the signs you have a tooth abscess? 

A tooth abscess is a serious infection caused by bacteria. While a tooth abscess often isn’t visible, you’ll likely have signs of an infection if you know what to look for. If you have any symptoms associated with a tooth abscess, you should see your dentist immediately. 

What is a tooth abscess? 

A tooth abscess is a pocket of pus caused by a bacterial infection. An abscess can form at different parts of the tooth and for different reasons.  

Periapical abscess 

A periapical abscess occurs at the tip of the root. These usually form because of an untreated tooth cavity or old dental work that lets bacteria into the innermost part of the tooth.  

Periapical abscesses aren’t visible as they occur deep below the gums, at the root of the tooth.  

Periodontal abscess 

A periodontal abscess can form when periodontitis causes the gums to pull away from the teeth. When the gums recede, they form deep pockets where bacteria can grow.  

If tartar builds up too much or food gets stuck in these pockets, it can cause an infection. If the pus can’t drain it can then form an abscess.  

Periodontal abscesses are sometimes visible. They look like a small red ball pushing out of the gum. 

How does a dentist treat a tooth abscess? 

A dentist will treat a periodontal abscess by opening the gum so they can drain the pus.  They may also prescribe antibiotics to properly treat the infection. In some cases, you may also need additional dental care.  

If you have a periapical abscess, your dentist may opt for a root canal. A root canal involves cleaning and removing inflamed or infected pulp on the inside of your teeth. Once cleaned, your dentist will seal the tooth to prevent bacteria from re-entering.  

What if a dentist can’t treat my tooth abscess? 

Sometimes, a dentist may not be able to save your tooth and the only option may be an extraction. This is usually reserved as the last option. A dentist will never leave your tooth untreated. The infection can lead to serious medical complications like sepsis if the tooth is not treated or extracted.   

How do I know if I have a tooth abscess? 

It can be hard to know if you have a periapical abscess as it occurs below the surface of the tooth. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms you sold see your dentist immediately:  

  • A throbbing toothache that gets worse over time 
  • Toothache that spreads to your neck, jaw or ear 
  • Pain when you bite down or chew 
  • A fever or swelling in your face, cheek or neck 
  • Facial swelling that leads to difficulty breathing 
  • Swollen lymph nodes under your jaw or in your neck 
  • Bad breath or a foul odour and taste in your mouth 
  • Salty, foul-tasting fluid in your mouth if the abscess ruptures 

When should you see a dentist after experiencing possible symptoms? 

If you have a fever, facial swelling or trouble breathing you should go the emergency room straight away for treatment.  

For less urgent symptoms you should see your dentist if you’ve had a toothache or throbbing pains for more than a day. They may not be a sign of a tooth abscess, but they are signs that something is wrong. 

What happens if a tooth abscess ruptures? 

A tooth abscess won’t go away without treatment. Left untreated, there’s a risk the abscess will rupture. If this happens you may get a salty, foul-tasting fluid in your mouth from the burst infection. While this can make the pain go away, you’ll still need to see a dentist for treatment. 

If the abscess doesn’t drain, the infection can spread to the jaw and neck. You can develop an infection in the sinuses and there’s even the risk of developing sepsis – a life-threatening infection — that can spread throughout the body.  

How do I care for myself at home? 

If you’ve made an appointment there are some things you can do to feel more comfortable while you wait for treatment.  

  • Wrap some ice in a tea towel or grab a cold pack and hold it to the outside of your cheek for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. This will help reduce pain and swelling in your face. 
  • When booking the appointment, ask your dentist about whether you can take over-the-counter pain medication while you wait. 
  • If you’ve been for treatment, take your antibiotics as recommended and always finish the full number of antibiotics your doctor or dentist has prescribed.  

Is there any way to prevent a tooth abscess? 


Regular dental checkups are one of the easiest ways to care for your teeth. A periapical abscess could be caused by a cracked filling or damage to your tooth enamel. Annual checkups allow your dentist to keep on top of any dental work or changes to your teeth.  

Poor dental habits 

Along with regular checkups, not taking care of your teeth and gums can lead to an abscess either at the tooth root or below the gums. This can also lead to other problems including gum disease and cavities. 


A diet high in sugar, lollies and soda can cause tooth cavities and in turn, increase your risk of a tooth abscess.  

Dry mouth 

Some medications and medical conditions can increase your risk of tooth decay.  

How to seek treatment for a tooth abscess? 

If you’re experiencing trouble breathing, facial swelling or a high fever you should visit the emergency room right away. 

For other symptoms of a tooth abscess, you can book an emergency appointment at 0508 GENTLE or call any one of our four Wellington dental locations directly.