How Long Until a Tooth Infection Spreads and Becomes Fatal?

A tooth infection can cause excruciating pain, but can it be fatal? Read on to learn how long you can wait before serious problems occur.

January 20, 2023
How Long Until a Tooth Infection Spreads and Becomes Fatal?

Your teeth are the only bones visible from the outside of your body (at least we hope so). It’s important to take good care of your teeth so that your smile is always looking its best.

However, cavities from tooth decay are increasingly common. While dental filling procedures are quick and effective methods for correcting these abscesses, not everyone can afford them. Considering nearly 50% of Americans are without any form of dental coverage, it means that there are plenty of people who are at risk of severe infection due to untreated tooth decay.

If you’re concerned about possible tooth decay and its effects on your long-term health, we’ve got some answers to help clear the air. Here’s everything you need to know about whether or not a tooth infection can become fatal.

What Is a Tooth Infection?

A tooth infection, or tooth abscess, is a pocket of pus from a bacterial infection underneath the surface of the teeth. It’s caused by bacterial invasion of the pulp, which is the innermost portion of a tooth containing blood vessels and nerves.

Bacteria can enter the pulp through cracks, cavities, or cracks in the tooth and spread down to the root. This can cause swelling and inflammation, which is where the excruciating feeling of a toothache comes from.

There are three types of tooth infections that can cause decay:

  • Periapical: These abscesses form at the tip of the root and are caused by bacterial invasion through a cavity or fracture.

  • Periodontal: These infections occur in the bone and tissues that support a tooth. It’s usually the result of gum disease.

  • Gingival: An infection that develops in the gums only and does not normally affect the teeth themselves.

You can usually tell when you have a tooth infection because you’ll feel sharp or shooting pain, as well as possible throbbing sensations in the affected tooth. Likewise, you may feel increased sensitivity to hot and cold, bitter taste in the mouth, swelling, loosening of a tooth, and gum redness or swelling.

Several factors can increase your risk of developing a tooth abscess. For one, poor dental hygiene (not brushing your teeth or flossing regularly) can weaken the defensive enamel on the outside of a tooth and leave the inner structures susceptible to damage.

Additionally, eating sugary and starchy foods can cause bacteria in the mouth to produce extra acid, wearing away protective enamel. This can leave you prone to tooth decay and more likely to develop an infection later on.

Can Tooth Infections Be Fatal?

Usually, it takes quite a bit of time for a tooth infection to spread to your jaw and other areas of your head and neck. With that in mind, you can usually get treatment for a dental abscess within a few weeks or months of feeling pain and still come out without much more than a scar.

However, if an infection is left untreated for long enough, it can prove to be deadly. Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection, and it is a life-threatening medical emergency. It occurs when a growing infection triggers an onslaught of serious symptoms, including:

  • High blood pressure and heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever or shivering
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Confusion
  • Clammy and sweaty skin

Sepsis is an extreme medical emergency, and if you suspect that you have it, you should contact emergency care immediately.

While the timeline between the onset of infection and sepsis is unclear, it’s likely to take a few months. A telltale sign that your infection needs immediate treatment is if the abscess ruptures. When this happens, you may experience significantly less pain than you felt before. However, that’s not a good thing, as it means the pus within your tooth may be spreading to other structures within your head and neck.

Can Tooth Infections Be Treated?

The good news is that there are several methods for treating a tooth infection that can help to prevent infection from occurring.

While dental fillings are preferred to help correct cavities or small instances of tooth decay, it is typically not possible once an infection has occurred. At this point, the two main options are either root canal or extraction.

A root canal procedure involves removing the infected pulp from the root of a tooth. Then, a dental filling is used to restore the integrity of the tooth. This is preferred instead of extraction as it can preserve the existing tooth.

However, if an infection is too hard to repair, a dentist may need to extract it. Even with extraction, dental implants, dentures, bridges, and veneers can help to restore the appearance of your mouth so that it looks good as new.

If a tooth infection worsens to such an extent that septic shock occurs, sepsis can be treated as long as you seek care immediately. Antibiotic medications are administered right away in addition to the use of intravenous fluids. If necessary, vasopressors can constrict the blood vessels to increase blood pressure if it remains low even after receiving treatment.

How To Prevent Tooth Infections

The best way to treat a tooth infection is by preventing one from happening in the first place. Here are some simple tips and tricks.

Practice Proper Oral Hygiene

While most people brush and floss, not many people brush and floss correctly. When brushing your teeth, ensure that you are spending at least two minutes brushing, making sure to hit every quadrant of the mouth for an equal period of time. Use gentle, circular motions that include the gumline, and make sure your toothbrush is soft bristled so it’s not abrasive on your enamel.

As for flossing, be sure to get as close to the gum line as possible. A little bleeding is normal if you haven’t flossed in a long time, but if you stick with it, you’ll find that it gets much more comfortable.

Routine Check-Ups

Visiting your dentist every six months is essential to your health for multiple reasons, but it’s especially useful for preventing potentially deadly infection. This is because your dental hygienist will be able to locate early warning signs of cavities and infections so that they can be dealt with before getting to that point.

If a cavity is in its early stages, it’s possible that a dentist can reverse it through fluoride treatments that strengthen the enamel. Not to mention, routine cleanings can help prevent plaque and tartar build-up that otherwise lead to tooth decay.

Swap Out Sweets

We love a good pack of Sour Patch Kids as much as the next guy, but it’s important to limit your intake of sugary and acidic foods that wear down your enamel. Candy, coffee, and sodas are a few common examples of foods and drinks that are smart to cut back on.

On the other hand, increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables may be a good decision. This is because these fibrous foods require the mouth to create more saliva to chew. Saliva is your body’s natural defense against bacteria, so it may be able to limit the risk of infection.

Consider Dental Sealants

Dental sealants are made of plastic or other dental materials, and they line the top of the back teeth to act as a physical barrier between bacteria and your tooth. In fact, these have been shown to reduce the risk of decay in the molars by nearly 80%.

Get Care for Your Tooth Infection With Flossy

Tooth infections occur when the underlying pulp of a tooth becomes exposed to bacteria. While it takes a long time for a tooth infection to become fatal, it’s possible for a tooth infection to develop into sepsis if left untreated.

Typically, this process takes a few months. And even though it may feel like your pain subsides when the abscess bursts, don’t be fooled. This is actually the moment where it’s increasingly important to seek dental treatment.

The problem is that a root canal procedure costs nearly $1,400 without insurance, which is inaccessible for many. Getting dental care you need shouldn’t mean the difference between life and death.

It’s time for a change.

Flossy uses a pay-as-you-go model where you only pay for the services you receive. No deductibles, no monthly premiums, and no membership fees. It’s just transparent pricing you can trust.

No insurance? No problem. Book an appointment with top dentists in your area and get up to 50% off your next service.


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Abscessed Tooth: Tooth Infection Symptoms & Treatment | Cleveland Clinic

What is sepsis? | Sepsis

Tooth abscess - Symptoms and causes | The Mayo Clinic

Slide show: Root canal treatment | The Mayo Clinic

Tooth extraction | MedlinePlus