How does a dentist drain an infection?

What is a dental infection?

A dental infection occurs when bacteria invade the pulp of a tooth, which contains the blood vessels, nerves and connective tissues. This can happen through tooth decay, cracks or chips in the teeth, trauma to the tooth, or prior dental work like root canals or fillings. The pulp becomes inflamed and infected, leading to accumulation of pus at the root tip or around the tooth. Common symptoms of a dental infection include tooth pain, swelling, sensitivity to hot or cold foods, and bad breath. If left untreated, the infection can spread to surrounding teeth, tissues and bone, potentially becoming very serious.

What causes a dental infection?

There are several potential causes of dental infections:

  • Tooth decay – Bacteria in the mouth use sugars and starches in food to produce acids that erode and break down tooth enamel. This allows bacteria to penetrate deeper layers of the tooth and infect the pulp.
  • Cracks or chips in teeth – Cracks or fractures that expose the inner layers of a tooth provide a pathway for bacteria to enter and infect the pulp.
  • Previous dental work – Fillings, especially deep ones, or cracks in existing fillings can allow bacteria to seep in over time. Root canals that weren’t fully sealed or have become re-infected are another source.
  • Gum disease – Advanced periodontal disease destroys gum tissues and bone, creating openings for bacteria to infect the tooth roots and pulp.
  • Trauma – A blow or injury to a tooth can damage the pulp, allowing bacteria to enter and cause infection.
  • Untreated cavities – Small, untreated cavities can worsen over time and allow infection of the inner pulp.

Poor oral hygiene and infrequent dental visits also raise the risk of dental infections by allowing tooth decay and other oral health problems to progress unchecked.

What are the symptoms of a dental infection?

Common symptoms of a dental infection include:

  • Tooth pain – This may range from mild sensitivity and dull throbbing to severe, sharp pain. The pain may be constant or come and go.
  • Tooth sensitivity – High sensitivity to hot or cold foods and drinks.
  • Swollen gums – The gums around the infected tooth may become inflamed, swollen and tender.
  • Bad breath – Foul-smelling breath is common with dental infections.
  • Pus – Yellow or white pus may drain from around the tooth, or you may notice a bad taste in your mouth.
  • Swollen lymph nodes – Nodes under the jaw or in the neck may swell as the body fights the infection.
  • Fever – A low-grade fever may accompany a dental infection in some cases.
  • Fatigue and malaise – Feeling run down and generally unwell may occur with a spreading infection.

The severity of symptoms often depends on the location and extent of the infection. They tend to get worse over time without treatment.

How do dentists diagnose a dental infection?

Dentists use a combination of approaches to diagnose a dental infection, including:

  • Medical history – The dentist will ask about your symptoms, oral hygiene habits, recent dental procedures, health conditions and medications.
  • Dental exam – Careful examination of your mouth, teeth and gums helps identify potential sources of infection like decay, cracks, defective fillings or gum disease.
  • X-rays – Dental x-rays allow dentists to see below the surface for signs of infection in the roots or bone surrounding teeth.
  • Testing – Temperature, percussion or bite sensitivity tests help pinpoint which tooth is infected.
  • Probing – Gently probing the depth of pockets around teeth identifies gum infections.

In some cases, your dentist may order additional tests like a CT scan to check for spread of infection to surrounding tissues and bone. They may also take a sample of drainage from an abscess for lab testing to identify the specific bacteria involved.

How do dentists drain a dental infection?

Draining a dental infection helps relieve pressure, pain and swelling. This also allows any pus and toxins to escape so your body can start healing. Depending on the type and severity of infection, dentists use various techniques to drain it:

Draining an abscessed tooth

For an abscessed tooth with a localized pocket of pus at the root tip, the dentist will:

  • Numb the area with local anesthetic.
  • Make a small incision in the swollen gum tissue over the abscess to provide drainage.
  • Gently irrigate the area with sterile salt water using a syringe and cannula to flush out pus and debris.
  • Insert a rubber drainage tube or gauze strip into the incision site temporarily to keep it open for further drainage.
  • Prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.
  • Schedule root canal treatment or tooth extraction once the acute infection has resolved.

Draining a gum abscess

For a gum abscess between teeth or infections of the gums themselves, the dentist will:

  • Anesthetize the area.
  • Make a small incision into the swollen gum to release pus and relieve pressure.
  • Flush the area thoroughly with sterile saline.
  • Pack it with gauze or a drainage tube for further drainage.
  • Prescribe antibiotics.
  • Debride away infected gum tissue once drained.
  • Deep clean between teeth and smooth over areas of damaged bone.

Advanced periodontal infections may require multiple drainage procedures over several visits along with antibiotics and deep cleanings.

Draining an infected cyst

For a cyst or large abscess in the jawbone, the dentist will:

  • Take x-rays to determine the exact location and size.
  • Numb the area extensively.
  • Make an incision into the gum and bone to access the cyst.
  • Drain and thoroughly irrigate the cyst cavity.
  • Pack open for continued drainage.
  • Prescribe a course of antibiotics.
  • Allow time to heal before follow up x-rays.
  • Surgically remove cyst lining at a later visit if needed to prevent reoccurrence.

In some cases, the dentist may refer you to an oral surgeon for surgical drainage and removal of larger jaw cysts or abscesses.

What happens after draining an infection?

After draining a dental infection, your dentist will schedule follow-up appointments to monitor your healing and treat the original source of infection.

  • Antibiotics – Take all antibiotics as prescribed to clear any remaining bacteria.
  • Pain medication – Over-the-counter medications can relieve discomfort as your infection resolves.
  • Warm saltwater rinses – Rinse gently after meals and before bedtime to keep the area clean.
  • Apply warm compresses – Place a warm, damp cloth against your skin to help reduce swelling.
  • Follow up appointments – Your dentist will want to examine the area during your healing process.
  • Address the source – Once the acute infection clears, you’ll need a root canal, tooth extraction, deep cleaning or dental restorations to address the underlying problem.

It may take up to a few weeks for the area to fully heal after draining an infection. Practicing excellent oral hygiene and keeping follow-up appointments helps prevent recurrence of dental infections. Contact your dentist promptly if symptoms persist or worsen.

When to see a dentist for an infection

It’s important to get prompt treatment for a suspected dental infection to prevent it from spreading. See your dentist right away if you notice symptoms like throbbing tooth pain, extreme sensitivity, gum swelling, or pus around a tooth. Keep the infection from becoming life-threatening by getting dental attention for these emergency warning signs:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Swelling in the jaw, neck, or under the tongue
  • Numbness in the face, mouth or teeth
  • High fever with stiffness in the neck
  • Rash or hives, wheezing or other signs of allergic reaction

These warrant a same-day dental visit to get prompt care. In some cases, antibiotics may be prescribed and definitive treatment delayed until the infection is under control. Leaving an untreated dental infection can have serious, even fatal consequences, so early treatment is critical.

Preventing future dental infections

You can help prevent painful dental infections by:

  • Brushing and flossing properly twice a day
  • Replacing worn toothbrushes every 3-4 months
  • Using antimicrobial mouthwash daily
  • Eating a balanced, non-cariogenic diet
  • Avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol
  • Treating small cavities quickly before they worsen
  • Getting regular dental cleanings and check-ups

Good home care, healthy habits and professional prevention services help keep your teeth and gums free of infection-causing bacteria. Be sure to see your dentist promptly if you do develop any symptoms of a possible dental infection so it can be diagnosed and treated before becoming more serious.


Dental infections develop when bacteria invade the soft pulp inside a tooth, leading to inflammation and pus formation. Common causes include tooth decay, cracks, trauma, and prior dental work. Symptoms like pain, swelling, sensitivity and bad breath appear once an infection takes hold. Dentists drain infections by making a small incision to release trapped pus and debris, flushing the area with sterile saline, and packing it open for continued drainage. Antibiotics and follow-up care to fix the source of infection helps prevent recurrence. Seek prompt dental attention if you suspect an infection, as they can rapidly spread and become life-threatening left untreated. Practicing good oral hygiene and getting regular dental care goes a long way towards preventing painful infections from developing in the first place.

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