Are you yet to realize that a tooth infection can even kill you? A recent example is that of Mike Williams, the former National Football League (NFL) player who passed away in September 2023 due to a rare form of sepsis associated with dental health problems.
Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) on their official website warns that though oral diseases are largely preventable, they can cause death. In this article, we take you through how long it takes until a tooth infection kills you, its symptoms, treatments, and how to prevent them.
A tooth infection can rapidly escalate into life-threatening complications if left untreated, potentially affecting the bloodstream or other body parts. However, death from a tooth infection is rare and often preventable with timely and appropriate treatment.
What is a tooth infection? How Is Treated?
A tooth infection is a condition in which bacteria invade the pulp and move on to surrounding tissues. To explain, pulp is the soft area within your tooth. A tooth infection generally happens due to dental procedures, trauma, or dental caries.
The American Dental Association cites reasons such as tooth decay, periodontal disease, or a cracked tooth that leads to tooth infection. Due to any of these conditions, bacteria may enter the pulp thus causing an accumulation of pus at the root tip in the jawbone. This build-up of the pus is known by the term abscess. If you leave an abscess untreated, it may end up in a severe infection that can affect your jawbone.
Symptoms of tooth infections
An initial sign of a tooth infection is a sore or throbbing tooth. On leaving it untreated you will experience swelling, pain radiating to the jaw bone, and difficulty chewing. It may even lead to fever and swollen neck glands. These are signs that the tooth infection is spreading to other parts of the body.
The other oral symptoms of tooth infection range from a bitter taste in your mouth, bad breath that does not disappear even after rinsing your mouth with water or a mouthwash, loosening of teeth, red or swollen gums, open, draining sore on the gums in which your tooth is situated and tooth sensitivity.
How does a tooth infection progress?
Tooth infections start as localized discomfort. However, keep in mind that they can escalate pretty fast. Subsequently, the infection can spread to the root of your teeth ultimately causing a painful dental abscess. Failing to treat on time may result in the infection extending beyond the mouth and impacting other body parts such as the neck, jaw, and even the heart or brain.
When does a tooth infection become an emergency?
Treat a tooth infection as an emergency whenever you have a fever, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing or breathing, and severe swelling that spreads beyond your mouth. These symptoms are indications that the tooth infection has extended deeper into your jaw and surrounding tissues or even to the other body parts.
In case you come across any of the aforementioned symptoms, especially difficulty breathing or swallowing, reach out to a doctor immediately.
Scenarios when a tooth infection becomes life-threatening
The following are some of the scenarios in which a tooth infection turns out to be life-threatening.
- When the tooth infection spreads to your bloodstream, it leads to a condition termed sepsis. This is an emergency that can end up in organ failure. Also, if not treated on time, it can even become fatal.
- The next possibility is that the infection spreads to your brain via the sinus or the blood vessels. Though the chances of occurrence are less common, the complication can turn out to be extremely serious.
- Ludwig’s Angina is another severe complication that can occur as a result of tooth infection. A major problem with this infection is that it progresses quickly and may block the airways. Thus, ultimately you will suffer from breathing difficulties that demand urgent medical intervention. Ludwig’s Angina is mainly caused due to a tooth or dental infection and if not promptly treated, this condition can become life-threatening.
Treatment for tooth infections
There are various treatment options available for tooth infections. Depending on the state of your infection, your dentist may recommend one or a combination of the below treatment options.
1. Draining out the abscess
To remove the abscess, your dentist might make a small incision so that it lets the abscess drain out. It will be followed by washing the area with saline.
2. Root canal treatment
Once the process of drilling down into your teeth and getting rid of the diseased pulp is over, the dentist will drain the abscess. Subsequently, he/she will fill and seal your tooth’s pulp chamber and root canals. The next step is to cap your tooth with a crown or another restoration.
3. Antibiotics to prevent infection
There are chances that your infection may spread to the nearby areas in the mouth. In such cases, your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to prevent the infection. However, antibiotics alone cannot be used as the definitive treatment for dental abscesses. Having said that, antibiotics form a part of the treatment plan and are generally used along with other therapies.
How to prevent tooth infection?
For the unknown, tooth infection can be painful and prevention is always better than cure. The first step towards preventing cavities or tooth decay would be to follow good oral care habits.
- Brush twice a day
- Floss daily so that any bacteria can be eliminated.
- Make sure that you go for regular checkups at your dentist. The reason is that the dentist will be able to diagnose issues that you may not notice.
- Reduce the consumption of sugary foods and drinks.
Untreated tooth infections can lead to severe, life-threatening complications like sepsis or infection spreading to other parts of the body.
Hope the article serves as an eye-opener on how long it takes for a tooth infection to kill you. Whenever you come across a sore or throbbing tooth, never make the mistake of leaving the infection untreated. The reason is that the faster you consult your dentist, you will soon become comfortable and pain-free.
Last but not least, make sure that you follow the oral care habits mentioned above. This would be the best approach to keep oral infections at bay.
- Erazo D, et al. (2020). Dental infections.
- Song C, et al. (2014). Cervical necrotizing fasciitis caused by dental infection.