How to Handle a Tooth Abscess Emergency

Dental Health
By: Spirit Dental
April 13, 2023

A woman grabbing her jaw in pain

Many patients ignore toothaches and other oral health problems, assuming they’ll subside on their own. However, a lot of the time these are symptoms of something far more severe.

An example of this is a tooth abscess. While it may seem minor at first, if left untreated, an abscess starts to impact other areas of your body.

Learn more about what causes a tooth abscess, symptoms to look out for, and how to treat it before it worsens.

What is a tooth abscess?

A tooth abscess is a pocket of pus that forms around a tooth as a result of a bacterial infection. Not only is it gross as it sounds, it can affect the area surrounding the tooth — including bones, gums and other nearby teeth.


The signs of a tooth abscess may vary, but can include the following:

  • Persistent throbbing or sharp pain in the area of the tooth
  • Loosened tooth
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold food and drink
  • Foul-smelling breath that doesn’t go away with brushing or rinsing
  • Bitter taste in the mouth
  • Redness and swelling of gums

It’s recommended to visit your dentist at the first sign of these symptoms.


Abscesses can form in different areas around a tooth for a variety of reasons. Poor dental hygiene, tooth decay or injury, gum disease or broken or cracked teeth can all contribute to infection that leads to an abscess.

There are three types of infections that can contribute to an abscess:

  • Gingival: Develops in the gums and typically doesn’t affect the teeth.
  • Periapical: Develops at the tip of the tooth root, and the bacteria travels to the inside of the tooth through a fracture or cavity, spreading to the bone over time.
  • Periodontal: Develops in the bone and tissues supporting the tooth, causing periodontitis or gum disease.


An abscessed tooth, if caught early enough, may be treated with over-the-counter antibiotics. However, more serious cases will require in-office treatments. An x-ray, CT scan and/or thermal test may be required to determine the severity of the condition and treatment required.

Upon diagnosis, your dental professional will be able to determine the best course of treatment. To eliminate the underlying infection, a few procedures may be done:

  • Incision and drainage to remove pus from the area.
  • Root canal to eliminate the underlying infection and restore the health of the affected tooth.
  • Tooth extraction to allow pus to drain from the socket when the tooth is damaged beyond repair.

When is a dental abscess an emergency?

Ideally, you would visit the dentist as soon as you suspect something is wrong. But life can get in the way, delaying the appointment and causing the abscess to get worse. If pain isn’t managed by medication or becomes intolerable, it’s time to visit an emergency dentist. These practitioners accept walk-ins and specialize in treating certain oral issues quickly.

In the case of facial swelling, fever or trouble breathing, skip the dentist and go straight to the emergency room. The infection may have begun to spread to other areas of your body.

How to pay for dental abscess emergency

When you have a dental emergency, you may be concerned about how much it will set you back. Whether you have insurance — and the specifics of your plan — can significantly impact how much emergency treatment will cost.

What insurance will cover

When it comes to emergency dental care, one size does not fit all — different dental insurance carriers have varying definitions of what an “emergency” is. Before you enroll in a plan, make sure you understand what kind of emergency situations are covered, and by how much.

Many severe dental conditions, including abscesses, occur when minor issues are ignored. The biggest benefit of dental insurance is that it typically covers preventative care in full. Visiting the dentist regularly for exams and cleanings ensures any existing problems are addressed and treated before they worsen.

You can also find plans that partially cover fillings and some restorative care, which will be far less expensive and invasive than an extraction or root canal.

Options outside of insurance

The monthly premium you’ll pay for a dental insurance plan is less expensive than paying out of pocket for an emergency. But if insurance is not an option, there are some other routes you can take to lower costs.

For an annual fee (typically far cheaper than insurance), dental discount plans provide discounts for certain services. Financing is similar to a credit card; use the card to pay for services and pay it back over time. Be sure to check that the service and dental professional qualify for financing under your plan. Finally, public dental clinics are community-based offices that charge for care based on what a patient can afford.

No-wait full coverage dental plans

Don’t let cost get in the way of caring for your health and protecting yourself from serious illness. Find a full coverage plan that gives you peace of mind in case of an emergency like an abscess. Spirit Dental offers low-cost dental plans with no waiting period so you can resolve your symptoms and get back to your life.

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