September 19, 2020
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Abscess gives warning

By: George Malkemus
August 9, 2019

An abscess warns us that something’s wrong with the body

“My health is the main capital I have, and I want to administer it intelligently.” Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)

Ernest Hemingway, one of the great American authors of the twentieth century, was ahead of his time when he recognized the connection between his health and his productivity.  The irony of Hemingway’s quote is that at age 61, he shot himself, committing suicide after his health had broken down.

When your body alerts you that something is wrong, take care of the problem right away. Even minor warnings should never be ignored. Your body is telling you something needs immediate attention.  One of the things your body can alert you to is an abscess. 

Abscess Overview

An abscess is a tender, easily pressed mass generally surrounded by a colored area from pink to deep red. The middle of an abscess is full of pus and debris. The abscess is attempting to isolate a bacterial infection and build a fence around the infection so that it can’t spread to other areas of the body. The ball of pus that forms contains dead and live bacteria, white blood cells that are trying to stop the infection and liquefied dead tissue.

Painful and warm to touch, abscesses can show up any place on your body. The most common sites are in your armpits (axillae), areas around your anus and vagina (Bartholin gland abscess), the base of your spine (pilonidal abscess), in your groin and around a tooth (dental abscess). Inflammation around a hair follicle can also lead to the formation of an abscess, which is called a boil (furuncle).

Unlike other infections, antibiotics alone will not cure an abscess. In general, an abscess must be opened and drained in order for it to improve.  Draining can occur on its own, but usually the abscess must be opened and drained surgically by a doctor.

Dental Abscess

Dental abscesses are often extremely painful, since they form in the bone at the root tip.  Most other medical abscesses can expand in soft tissue of the body.  However, a dental abscess in the bone cannot expand and instead produces painful pressure on the surrounding nerves.  Usually a dental abscess can be treated successfully with root canal therapy or an extraction.  If left untreated, a dental abscess will eventually eat through the jawbone and spread into the soft tissues of the cheek.  At this point, an incision and drainage are necessary. 

Death from a dental abscess

If a dental abscess is left untreated, it can lead to life-threatening disease.  In the lower jaw, the infection can spread into the neck.  Extreme neck swelling can close off the windpipe, resulting in asphyxiation and death.  An upper jaw abscess can spread into the sinus and even migrate into the brain, causing a stroke or uncontrollable swelling.  

In March 2007, Mary Keel died from a dental abscess in Petaluma at age 76.  A stroke victim, Mary Keel’s dental health was neglected at a convalescent home in Petaluma.  The nursing home neglected Keel’s dental hygiene to the point that she developed an oral abscess from tooth decay. The abscess spread to her neck, causing extreme swelling.  She died of cardiac arrest brought on by blood poisoning and reduced ability to breath.  Mary Keel’s death is a sad story and a reminder of the importance of good oral health.

Before the advent of modern medicine and the use of antibiotics, dental abscesses were frequent causes of death.  Ancient human skulls often show large bone loss at the tip of teeth, indicating an abscess and the probable cause of death.

How to recognize a dental abscess

There are several telltale symptoms of an abscessed tooth or gum:

    * A gnawing or throbbing pain in the tooth

    * A sharp or shooting pain in the tooth

    * Chewing causes pain

    * Tooth is sensitive to hot or cold fluids or food

    * Fever

    * A bitter taste in the mouth

    * Bad breath

    * Red and swollen gums

    * Swollen area of the upper or lower jaw

    * Swollen glands in the neck

    * Open draining sore on the side of the gum

Treatment of a dental abscess

In its early stage, an abscess can be successfully treated with antibiotics, warm salt-water rinses and over-the-counter pain relievers. If the abscess is due to a gum infection, then usually periodontal therapy can resolve the problem. However, if the infection is due to deep decay and has damaged the tooth’s pulp, a root canal is usually needed. Sometimes tooth extraction may be necessary or an abscess may have to be surgically drained. X-rays can help determine the extent of the infection’s damage to surrounding bone.

If you experience the symptoms listed above, contact your dentist immediately. The best way to reduce the risk of having an abscessed tooth is practicing good oral health care, including frequent professional cleanings and examinations.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  

You may not write the next Great American Novel, but you can give yourself a healthy body and healthy teeth that will last you a lifetime!


George Malkemus has a Family and Cosmetic Dental Practice in Rohnert Park at 2 Padre Parkway, Suite 200. Call 585-8595, or email info@  Visit Dr. Malkemus’ Web site at