Last Updated on April 26, 2023 by Dr Gustavo Assatourians DDS
Infections are the consequence of the colonization of bacteria in a living organism. When treatment is not carried out, there can be serious consequences. This may be the case with dental or odontogenic infections; although the immune system tries to fight an infection, when not treated in time it can spread to different parts of the body, increasing the infection, and generating other health problems at a systemic level. Here we listed the most common symptoms of a tooth infection spreading to the body to help you catch it early.
When bacteria enter a tooth, either due to enamel weakness caused by caries or a fissure or fracture, they can enter the soft tissue. It mandates adequate follow-up. The signs and symptoms appear according to the severity of the infection. Note that this is related to the different stages of a dental abscess.
The causes of dental infection are multiple; however, the most common are:
- Caries: poor hygiene and a high sugar diet, certain health conditions that suppress the immune system, medications, hormonal changes, or some genetic conditions, can cause cavities that, if not treated, may generate infection.
- Gum disease: plaque and tartar buildup causes bacteria to adhere below the gum line, eventually causing an infection.
- Injuries: injuries caused in or around the tooth increase the probability of a dental infection. These are usually caused by trauma or surgery; but in either case, the infection can spread to the root of the tooth or even the bone.
Symptoms of a dental infection
Dental or oral abscesses are a response to an infection in the tooth, gum, or jawbone caused by bacteria. They are generally located in one area and manifest as a sac of pus.
They generally form at the tip of the nerve root, usually the result of untreated decay. They can also originate from some type of injury or previous dental interventions. If not treated, it can spread to the jaw bone and affect the blood vessels.
The most frequent and relevant symptoms are:
- Pain: a throbbing sensation in the tooth and intense, stabbing, and persistent pain that radiates to the neck, ear, and jaw. It gets worse when lying down.
- Sensitivity: There is discomfort when chewing, clenching the teeth, and with hot or cold foods.
- Gum injury: swelling in the gingival area near the tooth. It has the appearance of a pimple from which pus drains. When it bursts, it can reduce the pain, but it does not mean that the infection has been cured.
- Swelling in the area: increase in the volume of the face or cheeks in the vicinity of the affected part.
- Swollen lymph nodes: the glands in the jaw and neck become swollen and tender to the touch.
- Bad breath and unpleasant taste in the mouth.
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing.
What happens when the dental infection spreads to the body?
It is not common for dental infections to spread, but due to poor access to basic services such as water, health, and nutritious food, it is likely that they occur.
When the dental abscess is acute and not treated in time or properly, it is very likely that the infection will spread to other areas of the body, causing serious and even some life-threatening complications. Sometimes these abscesses burst and the pain, like some other symptoms, may disappear. Still, the bacteria continue inside and spread throughout the body through the blood vessels, spreading to the jaw, head, and neck.
A dental abscess that persists or has been around for a long time can cause severe damage when left untreated, which could lead to sepsis, also known as Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS). This disproportionate response from the immune system is the result of the body’s way of counteracting the infection.
Therefore, such complications can cause:
- Osteomyelitis: an infection of the bone that surrounds the tooth.
- Cavernous sinus thrombosis: an infection of the blood vessels in the sinuses.
- Cellulitis: an infection of the skin and fat tissue directly under the skin.
- Parapharyngeal abscess: an abscess in the back of the mouth.
- Sepsis: a serious medical condition in which the immune system overreacts to an infection in the blood.
- Brain abscess: rare and life-threatening infection
- Endocarditis: the infection travels to the heart through contaminated blood vessels.
- Bacterial meningitis: infected blood vessels and nerves carry the infection to the brain.
In some cases, infections can become systemic, affecting multiple tissues and systems throughout the body.
Symptoms of a Tooth Infection Spreading to the Body
Symptoms of spreading dental infection into the body include:
5. Skin redness
7. Swelling of the face, which can make it difficult to open the mouth, swallow, and breathe properly
8. Severe and painful swelling of the gums
9. Dehydration, leading to darker urine and less frequent urination
10. Increased heart rate
11. Increased respiratory rate (more than 25 breaths per minute)
12. Increased body temperature
13. Stomach pain, diarrhea, and/or vomiting
Note: Severe pain and flu-like symptoms are common signs of spreading.
Dental infections and abscesses can lead to brain abscesses (in rare cases). You should never leave them untreated. Vision changes and body weakness are common with brain abscesses. Symptoms of a brain abscess from a spreading dental infection:
- Visual changes
- Body weakness on one side
- Personality changes
- Going in and out of consciousness
When to contact a doctor
It is important that at the first symptom of pain, you visit a dentist to prevent the infection from spreading. If it has already spread and you have any of the following symptoms, go to a hospital or clinic for immediate medical attention:
- Severe pain
- High fever
- Shaking or feeling cold
- Cold, sweaty skin
- Difficulty breathing
- High heart rate
- Blood pressure low
- Unexplained rash
- Persistent vomiting
It is possible that before diagnosing or initiating any type of treatment, your dentist will perform certain diagnostic tests as needed to adequately guide infection management. Some examples of diagnostic tests are X-rays, a CT scan, inspection at the site of the infection, and/or thermal tests to identify the sensitivity of the gums.
However, it is important to clarify that the infection will not disappear on its own. Here are the typical treatment strategies:
1. Root canal treatment or endodontics: this helps eliminate the infection and save the tooth if it has not yet reached the bone. The infected pulp of the tooth is removed and the remaining space is filled. The dental piece is not lost, generally the case with mature teeth. In a few days, the area will return to normal, and the treated tooth can last a lifetime.
2. Incision and drainage: your dentist will need to make a small incision (cut) in the abscess to drain the pus. Sometimes, a small rubber band is placed to keep the incision open and continue to drain.
3. Tooth extraction: sometimes it is not possible to save the tooth, so your dentist will need to extract it
4. Medicines: When the infection is not advanced, it is possible to manage it with antibiotics; however, if the infection is already an abscess, your dentist will opt for another form of management. they may indicate antibiotic treatment to eliminate the infection, preventing it from spreading further. Depending upon how advanced it is and what type of bacteria exists, it will require management with different types of antibiotics, or in more serious cases, it will be done in a hospital intravenously.
5. Hospitalization: if the infection is so severe that it has caused sepsis, it is very likely that you will need to receive intra-hospital treatment with intravenous (into a vein) antibiotics that can fight the infection and then surgical drainage of the abscess.
To prevent the annoying symptoms of a dental infection from appearing, certain oral care habits must be practiced regularly. Correct oral hygiene is the key to ensuring a healthy mouth. Frequent brushing and flossing are necessary to prevent cavities which, if left untreated, can lead to infection. The use of fluoride and a balanced diet with little to no sugar content will also prevent a dental infection or abscess.
If you have any questions about this or other topics, you can contact us at Channel Islands Family Dental as well as our page on Facebook. We look forward to your visit and we will make a timely diagnosis. Our dentists in Oxnard, Santa Paula, Ventura, Newbury Park, and Port Hueneme will be able to guide you toward the best treatment to take care of your health and give you back your best smile.
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