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How toothaches can kill

Some common toothache causes

That sore tooth you’re rubbing absentmindedly? You might want to get it checked out. Not only is the pain annoying, but left untreated, a toothache could lead to a host of nasty problems, including sepsis.

What’s sepsis? Put simply, it’s your body’s nuclear approach to fighting infection - except it’s so aggressive and toxic it usually turns into a life-threatening attack against your own immune system, and then tries to kill you.

What does sepsis have to do with a toothache?

Well, the root of a toothache (no pun intended) is based on infection. And when an infection is left untreated, your body works harder to fight bacteria. If the bacteria is left to its own devices, it can spread into your bloodstream through the pulp of the tooth, which holds lots of nerves, tissues and blood vessels. One thing leads to another, and you can end up with a dental abscess, or a pocket of pus, that forms in the mouth as a result of the bacterial infection. An abscess usually causes a lot of pain, swelling, a bad taste a in your mouth and a fever. It can also lead to sepsis.

On the other hand, if you have a toothache and visit your dentist, he or she can determine the cause, treat the problem and prescribe antibiotics to prevent the infection from spreading. Treating the cause of the infection can be fairly straightforward — you might need a filling, braces, a crown or a root canal. A tooth extraction is usually done as a last resort, but your dentist or endodontist can decide if it’s necessary.

While these options might not sound appealing, they’re a lot easier to manage than sepsis, and have far fewer side effects and risk. The numbers don’t lie:

  • Sepsis is ranked as the No. 1 "most expensive in-patient cost" in hospitals, with nearly 2,000 people hospitalized each year, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project.
  • Researchers have found that sepsis infections caused by dental problems are on the rise - with a 40% increase in less than a decade, according to the New York Times.
  • A person with sepsis is five times more likely to die than someone who experiences a heart attack or stroke, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The majority of bacterial problems that can lead to sepsis are treatable or can be prevented with regular dental care.

Prevention is easy

If you have a toothache, the best and more immediate way to handle it is to visit your dentist. He or she can identify what’s causing the pain and determine a course of action from there. But there are other steps to take that might help you avoid toothaches entirely:

  • Visit your dentist twice a year for cleanings.
  • Floss and brush after meals, including after lunch at work, if possible.
  • Play sports? Use a mouthguard.
  • Don’t use your teeth as bottle openers, scissors, etc. They’re tough, but they can break.

Remember: If something feels “wrong” or hurts, say something. Let your dentist or dental hygienist know that something is bothering you, like recurring jaw pain or headaches. Your dentist is a valuable resource in your health tool box — don’t waste it!

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Last updated: June 2018

The oral health information on this web site is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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