Ask the Dentist: Once a leading cause of death, oral abcesses can still be serious

Dentist Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care in Belfast says, while not as deadly as in the past, oral infections can still have grave implications for our wider health

There's mounting research to suggest that what goes on inside your mouth may have far-reaching implications for overall health
Lucy Stock

DEATHS from dental abscesses today are so rare that it’s difficult to imagine that 200 years ago, this was a leading cause of death. Dental infections and other tooth-related problems were listed as the fifth or sixth leading cause of death in London back in the early 1600s.

However, even nowadays dental abscesses can have very grave consequences.The idea that tooth decay can be life-threatening may seem ridiculous at first, but there's mounting research to suggest that what goes on inside your mouth may have far-reaching implications for your whole body health.

For some time, scientists have been seeing a statistical correlation between poor oral health and heart disease. There are other links too between oral problems and diseases such as stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, some cancers, diabetes, respiratory infections and pregnancy problems.

A dental abscess is a ball of pus that forms around a tooth root. It happens if the tooth is very decayed, has had a knock or is suffering from extreme gum disease. Broadly speaking, if a tooth is traumatised too much then the nerve and blood vessels inside it will become necrotic, leading to the formation of a pus-filled abscess.

In the vast majority of instances patients seek treatment and abscesses are successfully managed by removing the tooth, cleaning it or performing a root treatment. There are many infections that remain in jawbones and don't cause serious problems.

However, on occasion the infection can spread by seeping into your bloodstream or along the tissue planes to your brain or lungs. In severe cases, the infection may swell up and block your throat, making it hard to fully open your mouth, swallow or breathe.

An out-of-control infection will make you feel generally unwell and development of a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) can ensue. Treatment in this situation needs to be carried out quickly.

Other symptoms that indicate a tooth abscess may be escalating to a more serious level include a severe headache that doesn't go away with painkillers, change of mental state (such as confusion or irritability), problems with nerve function – such as muscle weakness, slurred speech or paralysis on one side of the body, seizures (fits) nausea and vomiting, stiff neck, changes in vision – such as blurring or double vision.

If you or someone you know experiences any of these symptoms seek medical treatment immediately.

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