Introduction 

A dental abscess is a collection of pus that forms in your teeth and spreads to the surrounding tissue. It forms as the result of a bacterial infection.

The main symptom of a dental abscess is a severe, throbbing pain. The pain usually comes on suddenly, gets gradually worse over a few hours or days, and causes teeth to be tender and sensitive.

Read more about the symptoms of a dental abscess.

Types and causes of dental abscesses

There are two types of dental abscess:

  • periapical abscess – where the abscess forms under the tooth (this is the most common type of dental abscess)
  • periodontal abscess – where the abscess forms in the supporting gum and bone

Both types are caused when bacteria build up inside your mouth and usually occurs due to a combination of:

  • poor dental hygiene – not cleaning your teeth and gums properly and regularly (read our advice on how to brush and floss your teeth)
  • consuming lots of sugary or starchy food and drink – the carbohydrates in these encourage bacteria to grow, causing tooth decay

Read more about the causes of a dental abscess.

Treating dental abscesses

If you think you may have a dental abscess, make a dentist appointment as soon as possible.

There isn't a lot your GP can do other than recommend painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, to help relieve the pain. You can get these over the counter from your local pharmacist.

Treatment varies, depending on what caused the abscess. Generally, treatment involves draining the pus, either with root canal treatment, removing the affected tooth or gum treatment.

This type of treatment should not be too painful, as local anaesthetic will be used to numb the affected area of your mouth.

Unlike some other types of infection, a dental abscess will not get better on its own and must be treated by a dentist. With appropriate treatment, the bacterial infection that causes a dental abscess can usually be cured. Antibiotics are not used to treat a dental abscess, but may occasionally be used to reduce the symptoms.

Read more about how a dental abscess is treated.

Complications of dental abscesses

Complications are rare, but can be serious. For example, the infection may spread to a nearby bone (osteomyelitis).

Read more about the complications of a dental abscess.

Finding an NHS dentist

If you are not registered with an NHS dentist, there are a number of options available to you:

Emergency treatment

If you are in severe pain, you may need emergency out-of-hours dental treatment.

Find out how you can access an NHS dentist in an emergency or out-of-hours.

You may have to pay for your treatment, depending on your circumstances.

Find out more about NHS dental services.




Who gets dental abscesses?

Anyone with teeth can develop a dental abscess – children and adults are equally affected.

A study carried out in America found that, on average, one in eight people seek treatment for a dental abscess in any given two-year period.

In England, the figure is thought to be higher, as levels of dental hygiene tend to be poorer. About 11,000 people are treated in hospital for dental abscesses in England each year.

Page last reviewed: 14/05/2014

Next review due: 14/05/2016