This problem is always serious. If left untreated, the infection can damage other teeth and spread to other areas of the body — possibly causing life-threatening infections of the face, neck, and brain in extreme cases.
We know you don’t want your child to suffer. So we’ll make sure you know how to recognize if your child may have a tooth infection. But, first, let’s talk about what a dental infection is and why it’s such an important health issue.
A dental infection is also known as a tooth abscess.
A tooth abscess, or dental infection, is a pocket of pus (fluid) caused by bacteria inside a tooth. Pus forms when the body tries to fight an infection caused by bacteria.
The infected area will often look completed normal. This is often a more painful situation, as the pus is contained inside the bone causing an increase in pressure and pain. More often, though, the area will likely be tender, soft, and swollen, and will look like a pimple on the surrounding gum. If you press the bubble, you may see a discharge of liquid.
What this means is that tooth decay is deep, affecting the tooth’s center, which is made up of nerves and blood vessels and called the pulp. The gum and surrounding tissue eventually becomes infected, and the infection may continue to spread from the root to the bones supporting the tooth.
You may be wondering how bacteria get inside a tooth. They enter the tooth through a crack or cavity in the tooth. Cavities are permanently damaged areas in the teeth that develop into holes. They are caused by poor oral hygiene and poor diet. Cracks in teeth are most often caused by trauma from an injury or prior dental work.
An abscessed tooth can also be the result of gingivitis or gum disease, but these mouth problems typically occur in adults.
In children, tooth decay, when bacteria break down the teeth, is the main cause of a tooth abscess. Tooth decay is also the most common chronic childhood disease, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists. Tooth decay can lead to cavities. Cavities are common — by the age of 5, about 60 percent of U.S. children will have had cavities at some point. But the real problem is when cavities go untreated, possibly leading to infection.
Key Takeaway: A dental infection is most likely caused by tooth decay and cavities in children.
Why dental infections are a serious problem for children
Children are at a greater risk for dental infections than adults because they do not have mature immune systems. A dental abscess will not get better or go away without treatment. Only a dentist can treat the infection and stop it from spreading.
Key Takeaway: Dental infections cannot be treated without professional medical care.
Watch for these warning signs in your child
As a parent, you should regularly check inside your child’s mouth. You want to be sure your child is brushing and flossing on a regular basis. You also want to look inside your child’s mouth and see what you find. If you do this on a regular basis, you will have a better chance of catching any problems before they become worse. Additionally, you should watch your child for any of the following signs and symptoms of a tooth infection:
A severe toothache, with gnawing or throbbing pain or sharp or shooting pain.
As the infection spreads, pus begins to collect, making the area sensitive and painful. One thing you should realize is that if the toothache stops, the infection may not be healed. If the pulp in the root of the tooth dies, the pain may stop or lessen, but the infection is still active and continues to spread and destroy tissue. The pocket of pus may also rupture and drain on its own, but this also does not mean it is healed.
A tooth that is darker in color.
An infected tooth may turn darker in color compared to surrounding teeth.
Sensitivity or pain when chewing.
The affected tooth may be sensitive to hold, cold, or pressure from chewing or biting.
Swollen and red gums and/or swollen neck or jaw.
Look at your child’s gums. They should be pink, with an even tone throughout the mouth. If the area above one of the teeth is red and swollen, an infection may be the cause.
As the infection spreads, your child’s neck and jaw may also swell.
Bitter taste in the mouth and bad breath.
If your child has bad breath and a toothache, this might be caused by a tooth infection. Occasional bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth is common. But if these problems are persistent, they may point to a serious issue and should be checked out by a dentist.
Loss of appetite and weight.
A loss off appetite and weight more often occurs in younger children, including toddlers. Because children may be unable to communicate their feelings, parents may not realize their child has a tooth problem. The pain and sensitivity can cause the child to stop eating as normal.
Fever or sickness.
If your child has an advanced infection, he or she may suffer nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and diarrhea.
If you notice any of the above signs in your child, it’s important that you take him or her to a dentist as soon as possible.
Key Takeaway: If you notice any of the following signs in your child, you should seek prompt care:
- a painful tooth
- a tooth that is darker in color
- sensitivity or pain when chewing
- swollen and red gums and/or a swollen neck or jaw
- a bitter taste in the mouth and bad breath
- loss of appetite and weight
- fever or other illness
How does a dentist diagnose and treat a dental infection?
During your appointment, the dentist will check your child’s teeth with a dental instrument and look at the gums. The dentist may also take X-rays to look for erosion of the bone around the infection.
If your child has a tooth infection, the dentist will drain the pus and prescribe antibiotics. In some cases, the dentist may need to pull the tooth. In young children, this won’t be a problem, as the permanent teeth will come in soon. But if your child’s permanent tooth has an abscess, a root canal may be necessary to clean and remove the infection or the dentist will need to extract the tooth.
Key Takeaway: A dentist will examine your child’s mouth and determine which treatment option is best.
Prevention is the best strategy
The best way to prevent your child from suffering from an abscess is to brush your child’s teeth — or make sure they brush properly — at least twice per day. Flossing is also important. With some children, gold star charts or other reward systems help.
You also want to avoid giving your child sugary drinks, such as soda and sweetened juice. For young children, don’t allow them to sleep with a milk bottle in their mouth. Why? Because the carbohydrate content in the milk reacts with acids in saliva and starts eating the tooth enamel. And then, tooth decay begins.
Another thing you want to do is to schedule regular dentist appointments for your child. Practicing and teaching your children proper oral health and oral care is the best way to protect them from getting a tooth infection, especially because sometimes an infected tooth may not have any symptoms at all. If a dentist is unavailable and your child has a fever, swelling in the face, or swelling in the jaw, you need to go to the emergency room. Your child’s airways may become cut off, preventing your child from breathing. Please don’t ignore this serious problem!
Key Takeaway: Prevention is the best way to keep your child from getting an infected tooth. Proper oral care and regular dental checkups is important.
Choose Dental Town as your child’s pediatric dentist
Dental Town is an excellent option for pediatric dental care in Johns Creek, Canton, Cumming and Alpharetta and is accepting new patients and would love to see your child. Our pediatric dentists, Dr. Hansen and Dr. Davidson, has been providing exceptional care since 2001. They are both board-certified Diplomates of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry, and are members of many dental organizations. Our office strives to provide comprehensive, compassionate care. If you are a parent, we can help you feel good about your child’s teeth.
An estimated 17 million children in America go without dental care each year, according to the National Children’s Oral Health Foundation. Don’t let your child be one of these children.