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Article: Deadly Dental Abscess: Fact vs. Fiction DR. JERRY GORDON
Regardless of the source, a swelling of the gum indicates a more serious infection.

Have you ever had your gum swell from an infected tooth? Has anyone every told you that the "poison" from the infection can kill you? Is this just an "old wives tale", or is it the truth? To answer this question, we need to know a little more about dental infections, the potential risks, and how the dentist treats them.

Dental abscesses are the result of a bacterial infection originating in the teeth or gums. If a tooth is the source of the infection, it is usually the result of an untreated cavity. A cavity is an infection caused by a combination of carbohydrate-containing foods and bacteria that live in our mouths. Although there are many different types of bacteria in our mouths, only a few are associated with cavities. When these bacteria find carbohydrates, they digest them and produce acid. The acid dissolves the hard enamel that forms the outer coating of our teeth. As the cavity progresses deeper into the tooth, it eventually infects the nerve and blood supply of the tooth contained within the pulp. At this point, pain increases, especially when eating or drinking cold or hot foods and beverages, or when biting down.

In some cases, a dental abscess is caused by an infection of the gum. Bone loss from periodontal (gum) disease can cause a pocket or space to form between the tooth, gum, and bone. Bacteria and other debris get into the pocket and an abscess can form.

A dental abscess is treated in a number of ways, depending on the severity of the infection. If decay has caused the abscess, the tooth will require a root canal or will need to be removed. If the gum has caused the abscess, the gum will require a deep cleaning or surgical treatment, or the tooth may also need to be removed. Regardless of the source, a swelling of the gum indicates a more serious infection. In many cases, a small incision into the gum is needed to drain the abscess. Antibiotics and pain medication are often required to further treat the abscess and relieve discomfort.

So how dangerous is a dental abscess? It all depends on how soon the patient sees his or her dentist. If a person waits until the gum is so swollen that they have difficulty breathing or opening their mouth, the situation is very serious. It is not the "poison" of infection that makes the abscess deadly, but its growth that can choke off our ability to breathe. That is the type of dental abscess that can kill if left untreated.

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Dr. Gordon is the dental columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times. He has published more than 300 articles since 1998. Dr. Gordon was recently asked to provide commentary about mid-level providers for the influential dental journal Dental Abstracts.

Dr. Gordon responds to an article in Dental Abstracts challenging his views.

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