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Is that a gum boil? You may have a dental abscess - and why you should schedule a dental visit.

You look in your child's mouth and you see a pimple or gum boil - oh no! What does this mean and what should you do?

What is a dental abscess and why is it accompanied by a gum boil?

Picture of gum boil adjacent a lower molar
Example of gum boil next to a lower molar

A dental abscess is a localized collection of pus that forms in the tooth or the surrounding tissues due to a bacterial infection. When it has grown in size, it often will start to show up on your gums and look like a gum boil or pimple - and it can pop just like a pimple, too (but it will return, unlike a pimple until the underlying cause is resolved). An abscess can be completely painless or can often be accompanied by significant pain and swelling. Abscesses can occur in different parts of the tooth, such as the pulp (tooth nerve), the gums (gingival abscess), or the bone supporting the tooth (periodontal abscess).

Why does an abscess occur?

Often, there can be several reasons that an abscess occurs:

  • untreated dental decay

  • recent or prior trauma to the tooth

  • gum problems/disease from bone loss, a picking habit or gum trauma (kids often chew on all sorts of stuff, but things like nails are especially germy)

  • A history of dental disease where the decay / defect was close to the nerve

  • Excessive forces applied to the tooth + tooth wear (including heavy grinders/clenchers)

  • Other less common causes

Recognizing the symptoms of a dental abscess is important for patients and parents. Common signs include:

  1. Toothache or pain: The pain associated with a dental abscess is usually intense and throbbing as the gum boil gets bigger, often worsening when lying down or biting on the affected tooth. The pain may go away as the gum boil drains.

  2. Swelling: The area around the affected tooth or the gum tissue nearby may become swollen and tender.

  3. Sensitivity to temperature: The tooth may become sensitive to hot or cold temperatures.

  4. Bad taste and odor: An unpleasant taste or odor may be present due to the release of pus and bacteria.

  5. Fever: In some cases, a low-grade fever may develop.

What should you do if you suspect your child has a dental abscess or you see a gum boil?

If you suspect your child has a dental abscess, it is very important to seek dental care promptly. Here's what you can do:

  1. If the abscess is accompanied by facial swelling (cheek, eye, or lower jaw), inability to eat, swallow or breathe easily, or high fever, then this is a true medical emergency - call 9-1-1 or seek immediate medical attention. When an abscess has spread, it may affect other body systems suddenly and quickly so immediate medical care is needed to prevent bodily harm. Once stabilized by emergency medical providers, then you'll need follow-up care to address the dental problem underlying the medical emergency.

  2. Contact your dentist: Call your dentist and explain your symptoms if you see a gum boil without outside facial swelling or other life-threatening signs of infection. They will schedule an appointment for you as soon as possible.

  3. Pain management: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help alleviate the pain until you can see your dentist. Follow the instructions on the packaging and consult with a pharmacist if needed.

  4. Maintain oral hygiene: Continue to brush your teeth gently, being careful around the affected area.

  5. Do not attempt to pop the abscess: It is essential not to try to drain the abscess yourself, as this can worsen the infection and spread bacteria.

  6. Follow your dentist's advice: Once you see your dentist, they will assess the abscess and recommend an appropriate treatment plan. This may involve draining the abscess, prescribing antibiotics to control the infection, and providing dental treatment to address the underlying cause (such as a root canal or tooth extraction).

Word of caution:

Remember, dental abscesses should never be ignored, as they can lead to serious complications if left untreated. Seeking prompt professional care is the best course of action to manage a dental abscess effectively.

This blog should not substitute regular medical / dental advice by your dentist nor should you delay care in a true medical emergency.. If in doubt of your child's overall health and safety, please contact emergency medical services.



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