Diagnosis

In addition to examining your tooth and the surrounding area, your dentist may:

  • Tap on your teeth. A tooth that has an abscess at its root is generally sensitive to touch or pressure.
  • Recommend an X-ray. An X-ray of the aching tooth can help identify an abscess. Your dentist may also use X-rays to determine whether the infection has spread, causing abscesses in other areas.
  • Recommend a CT scan. If the abscess has spread to other areas within the neck, a CT scan may be used to assess the extent of the infection.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to get rid of the infection. To accomplish this, your dentist may:

  • Open up (incise) and drain the abscess. The dentist will make a small cut into the abscess, allowing the pus to drain out, and then wash the area with salt water (saline).
  • Perform a root canal. This can help eliminate the infection and save your tooth. To do this, your dentist drills down into your tooth, removes the diseased central tissue (pulp) and drains the abscess. He or she then fills and seals the tooth's pulp chamber and root canals. The tooth may be capped with a crown to make it stronger, especially for a molar tooth. If you care for your restored tooth properly, it can last a lifetime.
  • Pull the affected tooth. If the affected tooth can't be saved, your dentist will pull (extract) the tooth and drain the abscess to get rid of the infection.
  • Prescribe antibiotics. If the infection is limited to the abscessed area, you may not need antibiotics. But if the infection has spread to nearby teeth, your jaw or other areas, your dentist will likely prescribe antibiotics to stop it from spreading further. He or she may also recommend antibiotics if you have a weakened immune system.

Lifestyle and home remedies

While the area is healing, your dentist may recommend these steps to help ease discomfort:

  • Rinse your mouth with warm salt water.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), as needed.

Preparing for your appointment

You're likely to start by seeing your dentist.

What you can do

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment:

  • Make a list of any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to your tooth or mouth pain.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins, herbs or other supplements that you're taking, and the doses.
  • Prepare questions ahead of time to help make the most of your appointment time.

Some basic questions to ask your dentist include:

  • What's likely causing my symptoms or condition?
  • What kinds of tests do I need?
  • What's the best course of action?
  • What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
  • Are there any restrictions that I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist?
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
  • Are there any printed materials that I can have? What websites do you recommend?

Don't hesitate to ask additional questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your dentist is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as those below. Be ready to answer them to make the most of your time.

  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have you had any recent trauma to your teeth or dental work?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to worsen your symptoms?