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How Long Can a Tooth Infection Go Untreated?

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A young woman places her hand against her jaw, rubbing it due to tooth pain from an infected tooth.

Canadians are generally good about seeing their dentist for exams and cleanings. In recent years, 75% of Canadians visited the dentist annually. But dental health can still be overlooked, and neglecting a tooth infection can lead to severe—and painful—consequences.

Tooth infections should be treated as soon as possible. Although it could take weeks or months, a tooth infection could eventually spread to surrounding tissue and cause complications if left untreated. If that happens, you may need a root canal or other dental surgery to remove the infected pulp.

Do I Have a Tooth Infection?

Tooth infections can occur when bacteria enter the innermost part of a tooth, called the pulp. The bacteria can multiply rapidly, causing inflammation, pain, an abscessed tooth, and other noticeable symptoms, including: 

  • A persistent toothache that may reach your ear, jaw, or neck
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
  • Swelling around the affected tooth or in the face
  • Painful chewing or biting
  • Pain when lying down
  • Discoloured teeth
  • Loose teeth
  • Swollen or sore lymph nodes below your jaw or neck
  • A fever
  • Bad breath or a foul taste in your mouth

While your pulp is normally protected by the outer layers of enamel and dentin, there are several ways bacteria can sneak in. First and foremost, if you don’t maintain your dental hygiene, you may develop cavities. These are tiny holes in a tooth’s surface that could allow bacteria to reach a tooth’s pulp. This is why brushing and flossing regularly are so important.

Other than tooth decay, possible causes of tooth infections include:

  • Broken, chipped, or cracked teeth
  • Gum disease
  • Mouth injuries
  • Getting something stuck in your gums, such as popcorn or a toothbrush bristle

The Danger of Untreated Tooth Infections

Initially, a tooth infection may present mild symptoms, making it easy to dismiss or overlook the issue. However, as time goes by, the infection can progress, affecting the surrounding tissues and potentially spreading to other areas of the body.

One of the most common complications is that pus can form inside the tooth, becoming a dental abscess. It can take a few months for an infection to cause an abscess, but when it does, this pus can put pressure on surrounding tissues. This is often what causes the throbbing, intermittent pain tooth infections are known for.

The different types of dental abscesses include:

  • Periapical abscesses: an abscess at the tip of the tooth’s root, normally caused by cavities.
  • Periodontal abscesses: an abscess on the gum next to the tooth’s root, normally caused by gum disease or an injury.
  • Gingival abscesses: an abscess on the gums, normally caused by a foreign body getting stuck in the gum.

If a tooth infection spreads, it can affect neighbouring teeth, and you may require additional dental care. An infection could also reach your jawbone, causing bone loss around the affected tooth, leading to a loose tooth and potential tooth loss if it needs to be removed. In rare cases, a tooth infection may even enter the bloodstream, leading to sepsis.

A man discusses his tooth pain with a dental hygienist at his dentist office.

Seeking Treatment for Tooth Infections

If you suspect you have a tooth infection, it’s crucial to visit a dentist as soon as you can. We can perform a thorough examination to diagnose the infection accurately, including dental X-rays if necessary. 

Your treatment options may vary based on the infection’s severity and the tooth’s condition but could include:

  • Root canals: A root canal involves removing the infected pulp from a tooth before cleaning and sealing the cavity. This procedure can help preserve your natural tooth and prevent extraction.
  • Draining the abscess: In some instances, a dentist may be able to make a small cut in an abscess to drain the pus.
  • Tooth extraction: If an infection damages too much of a tooth’s structure, the only treatment option may be to completely remove the tooth to stop the infection from spreading.
  • Antibiotics and pain management: After a dental procedure, antibiotics may be prescribed to help control the infection and prevent its spread, while pain medication can help alleviate discomfort.

Should I Go To The Emergency Room?

If you notice the following symptoms, it could indicate your tooth infection has spread and is becoming serious:

  • Headaches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Vomiting or persistent nausea
  • Swelling around your neck, face, or eyes
  • Trouble chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  • Problems breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • A general feeling of unwellness

If you recognize these symptoms, seek emergency dental care from your dentist or visit an urgent care centre as soon as possible.

Keeping an Eye on Dental Health

Remember, ignoring a tooth infection is never a good idea. Untreated infections can lead to severe complications that can jeopardize your oral health and overall health. Maintaining good dental hygiene by brushing twice daily and flossing at least once daily can help prevent infections.

If you think you may have a tooth infection, don’t hesitate to request an appointment with our expert team at Rockwood Dental in Calgary. Seeking timely treatment can help you preserve your natural teeth, avoid unnecessary pain and expense, and maintain a healthy, beautiful smile.

Written by Rockwood Dental

At Rockwood Dental, our goal is to help you achieve the healthy and beautiful smile you’ve always dreamed of.

Our team is committed to providing a personalized dental experience from beginning to end. To do this, we offer a range of dental services, including preventative dental care, restorative dental care, and cosmetic dental care.

Rockwood Dental is located at #102, 1032 17th ave., between 9th and 10th Street SW in Calgary.

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