CAN YOU DIE FROM A TOOTH INFECTION?

By Dr. Lara Coseo DDS FAGD


Yes, it is possible to die from a tooth infection. If left untreated, teeth infections can spread beyond the jaw and cause life-threatening complications.
Can you die from a tooth infection?

Before the discovery of antibiotics, between 10% – 40% of dental infections resulted in death. But the introduction of penicillin for the treatment of teeth infections in the 1940s saw a dramatic reduction in fatalities. So thanks to modern-day medical advancements and improvements in the population’s general health, the mortality rate for tooth abscesses is very low.

Although deaths are rare, teeth infections are still a common cause of illness. Emergency hospital admissions for dental abscesses remain high and patients mustn’t underestimate how serious teeth infections can be, particularly if they spread beyond the jaw area and into the facial spaces and neck.

Early recognition and the correct management of severe teeth infections can be life-saving!

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Dental abscesses caused by tooth decay usually take many months to form. If you have regular dental check-ups, your dentist will be able to stop the infection long before it becomes dangerous.

The complex structure of the head allows the fast spread of inflammation if the infection is not treated promptly.

It is important to treat the cause of a tooth infection rather than just treating the symptoms. Antibiotic treatment without dental or surgical treatment to remove the root cause will always be unsuccessful.

How can you die from a tooth infection?

HOW CAN YOU DIE FROM A TOOTH INFECTION?



Teeth infections can spread and cause life-threatening medical complications, e.g. blocked airways resulting in respiratory failure, sepsis, deep neck infections, osteomyelitis of the jaws, endocarditis, cavernous sinus thrombosis,  facial cellulitis, mediastinitis, and tissue necrosis.

  • Respiratory obstruction resulting in respiratory failure which is a condition in which your blood doesn’t have enough oxygen or has too much carbon dioxide. 
  • Sepsis is when your body has an unusually severe response to an infection. It’s sometimes called septicemia. During sepsis, your immune system, which defends you from germs, releases a lot of chemicals into your blood. This triggers widespread inflammation that can lead to organ damage.
  • Deep neck space infections (DNSIs) are serious ENT presentations, with the potential for the patient to rapidly deteriorate with airway compromise.
  • Osteomyelitis of the jaws is osteomyelitis (which is infection and inflammation of the bone marrow, sometimes abbreviated to OM) that occurs in the bones of the jaws (i.e. maxilla or the mandible). Historically, osteomyelitis of the jaws was a common complication of teeth infections. 

There are certain teeth that have a higher risk of causing death by tooth infection. These teeth are those that could have an infection that can spread into an area that could either block off the airway or spread into the brain.

Typically, the ones that can block off the airway are going to be lower molars and premolars, that infection can spread into space under the tongue and close off the airway. So essentially, the person would die by asphyxiation.

The other danger area is that an upper canine or lateral incisor in the front can spread through facial planes and actually reach the brain. So those are two specific tooth areas that have a higher risk for causing death.

But it’s important for you to understand that it is technically possible to die from a tooth infection on any tooth in the mouth.
Tooth infection risks

RISK FACTORS

Risk factors associated with the spread of dental infections include – poor oral hygiene, unsupervised self-medicating use of antibiotics, inadequate use of antibiotics, lack of treatment of the infected tooth, delayed treatment, bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and underlying health conditions.

Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of suffering from tooth infections, e.g., low-income and minority individuals, people who live in rural areas and have limited access to dental care and, people who avoid dentists due to dental phobia.

HOW DOES A TOOTH BECOME INFECTED?

A tooth infection will begin in either the tooth itself or its supporting structures and can spread to the surrounding tissue. Tooth decay, gum disease, pericoronitis, broken teeth, and unsuccessful dental treatment can all be sources of infection.

Dental caries can develop slowly over many months before becoming a severe infection. As bacteria invade the tooth, they spread through the hollow internal chamber of the tooth where the nerve and blood vessels live. From there, the infection can spread from the internal chamber out through a pore at the tip of the root and infect the surrounding jawbone. From there, the infection can spread into the facial spaces so when we see a patient who has a large swelling in their face, we know that it has spread from inside the tooth to the tissue surrounding the tooth and then outward.

There can also be tooth infections that begin in the spaces around the tooth, we would call these periodontal infections. This occurs when plaque and tartar buildup containing dangerous disease-causing bacteria developed between the tooth roots and the surrounding Jawbone and gum tissue. That infection can also develop, and instead of beginning within the tooth, it begins around the tooth. Those are our two general categories of how tooth infections begin.

There are a number of factors that can increase the chances of developing a dental infection. These include, for example, poor oral hygiene, diabetes, smoking, and alcohol abuse.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR AN ABSCESS TO FORM?

There are multiple factors that can determine how long it takes to go from a healthy tooth to a dangerous infection. Cavities spread at different rates in different people, gum disease progresses at different rates in different people. So it’s impossible to answer that question.

The good news is if you see your dentist regularly, you should never reach the point where a tooth infection gets dangerous because we would catch it way before it reaches that point.

It is safe to say that if you have a cavity that’s large enough for you to see with your naked eyes when you look in the mirror, that cavity is at risk of causing a severe infection.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF A SERIOUS TOOTH INFECTION?

When people hear tooth infection they typically think of a toothache but it’s important to understand that not all tooth infections cause pain.

Obviously, toothache pain can also indicate a tooth infection. Whenever there’s a cavity inside the tooth reaching toward the nerve, that nerve will become extra sensitive and painful.

Another warning sign for that is when the infection has destroyed a significant amount of bone tissue that supports that tooth, the tooth may become loose, so looseness of the teeth is also a sign of dental infections.

The most dangerous sign that a tooth infection is spreading is swelling. If there is visible swelling in the gum tissues around a tooth in the area we call the vestibule, the area between your gums and your cheek. Or if it is visible from outside the mouth just looking at your face if you can see a visible swelling here or here, that’s an indication of a dangerous tooth infection.
stages of a tooth infection
KEY STAGES OF A TOOTH ABSCESS…
Stage 1:
1-3 days; soft and mildly tender swelling.
Stage 2:
2-5 days; hard, red, and severely sore swelling.
Stage 3:
5-7 days; abscess formation.

WHEN SHOULD YOU SEE YOUR DENTIST?

when should you see a dentist?
Many people misunderstand the nature of tooth infections and think they can just go to an emergency room, get a prescription for antibiotics, and they’ll be good to go. Unfortunately, dental infections always require dental treatment.

If you don’t have any dental treatment to address a dental infection, you can be sure it will come back. The bacteria that caused the infection will always remain either inside the tooth or around the tooth if no dental intervention occurs. And so depending on the cause of the dental infection, that will determine the treatment, but you cannot expect that the infection is actually healed or cured without any dental treatment at all.
It is imperative that you seek medical assistance at an urgent care facility through an emergency dentist or even at the emergency room. if you have a growing swelling, any swelling in the face, cheek, or neck could be the sign that swelling, that infection is spreading and it could be spreading into dangerous areas. So you need to seek attention immediately.

WHAT ARE THE TREATMENTS FOR A TOOTH INFECTION?

Given the excellent level of medical care available today, the prognosis for a severe teeth infection is very good. The action taken will depend on the source of the tooth infection, but likely treatments will involve tooth extraction, root canal therapy, incision + drainage, antibiotic therapy and, aftercare.

It is safe to say that any dangerous tooth infection can always be treated by removing the tooth through a tooth extraction. That is a very quick and effective way of removing the source of the tooth infection so that it no longer spreads, your body heals the surrounding tissues and you are free from the infection.

However, if you want to save the tooth, there are various ways that we can work to remove the source of the infection. When the infection develops within the tooth from a large cavity where bacteria penetrates into that hollow chamber inside the tooth. The treatment of choice would be a root canal treatment, a root canal treatment cleans out the internal chamber of the tooth. Fills it with a biocompatible filling material and seals out bacteria. That allows you to keep the tooth but it removes the source of that infection.

If the infection developed around the tooth, that would be a periodontal problem. In a periodontal problem, we need to clean the roots of the teeth, clean out that pocket around the tooth and help promote healing. Sometimes more involved treatment is required like gum surgery, using a laser traditional type of surgery. And so your dentist will recommend the best option to help you keep the tooth if you desire to do so.

In cases of severe dental infections, sometimes surgeons or emergency room doctors will perform something called an I and D that stands for incision and drainage. This procedure drains away pus, relieves swelling, and helps to kill anaerobic bacteria by exposing them to oxygen. This does not fix the problem but it does relieve pain and reduce swelling and help your body get ready for the dental treatment that will fix the infection. Those are relatively rare but in cases of dangerous spreading infections where we need to remove the pressure immediately, that’s the treatment of choice and it’s followed up by more dental treatment.

ANTIBIOTICS TREATMENT

Typically tooth infections will require that you take a prescription of antibiotics to halt the spread of the infection and kill the bacteria. It is important to take antibiotics for a period of time that is long enough to substantially reduce the bacteria and control the infection. We will usually prescribe at least one regimen that lasts 7 to 10 days and stress that patients follow the course of the prescription exactly to ensure maximum effect and avoid the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR TREATMENT HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL?

There are cases where the treatment doesn’t work successfully and the infection continues. This is more common when treatment attempts to save the tooth and keep it in the mouth.

If the treatment fails,  you will likely continue to experience symptoms of the original tooth infection. This could include tenderness, pain, swelling, or pus collecting at the infection area. Any of those signs require immediate intervention by the dentist or surgeon who did the treatment. It is possible for treatments to fail and so you need to be vigilant for the warning signs.

WHAT AFTERCARE IS REQUIRED AFTER A TOOTH INFECTION TREATMENT?

Once dental treatment has removed the source of the infection, it’s important that you do everything you can to support your overall health. This includes eating a healthy, balanced diet with lots of vitamins and minerals.

Sugar actually feeds inflammation. So when you need to heal from an infection, avoid food and beverages that are high in sugar. You also need to drink plenty of water, a dehydrated body cannot heal!

Get a little bit of exercise, whatever is appropriate for your body style. After you’ve received the necessary treatment, these things will help support your immune system and help you heal.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR A TOOTH INFECTION TO HEAL?

That depends on how severe the infection was and the level of your overall general health. Some people will heal quickly in less than a week. And for others, it can take up to a month before the tissues in the area heal, and all of the inflammation and infection is gone. And so it’s important for you to support your overall health.

HOW TO PREVENT TEETH INFECTIONS

In most cases, tooth infections are preventable. If you have good home care with oral hygiene that daily removes dental plaque from the teeth, that lowers your risk for developing those cavities and gum disease that can lead to dangerous tooth infections.

Early intervention is key, and we can always stop dental infections in their early stages. So It’s important to see a dentist on a regular basis. Close-up dental x rays and thorough dental evaluations will help catch dental diseases like cavities and gum disease before they become dangerous infections.
SUMMARY
To summarize the question, can you die from a tooth infection? The answer is yes. It’s very rare, but it’s still yes. And for that reason, It’s so important for you to have a great oral home care routine. To see a dentist consistently and to take steps to live a healthy lifestyle and support your immune system so that you can fight dental infections, it is possible to prevent them in most cases, you do not have to die from a tooth infection.Are most tooth infections the result of just bad luck? Or could you prevent them?
Dr. Lara Coseo


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Can you die from a tooth infection?
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Can you die from a tooth infection?
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Mouth Power
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