A tooth infection, usually in the form of a dental abscess, infected tooth or wisdom tooth, tooth decay or other dental infections, is a buildup of pus below the teeth, which is caused when bacteria enter the root of the tooth. This means that you are at a higher risk for tooth infection if you have cavities or gum disease. You can help prevent a tooth infection by keeping up a good oral hygiene regimen, which includes brushing twice a day and flossing and rinsing regularly. If you think you have a tooth infection, you should see your dentist to seek treatment.
Your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to treat a tooth infection but don’t be alarmed. Antibiotics are a common and effective treatment for most bacteria, including oral infections. We get frequent questions about antibiotics for a tooth infection and how they work, so we’ve tried to answer them below:
“Antibiotics can reduce the pain and swelling associated with a tooth infection, but antibiotics alone will never completely cure the infection. As long as the tooth has pulp within it, the bacteria have a food source on which they will continue to thrive. This is why root canal treatment is indicated for infected or abscessed teeth–it removes the bacteria’s nutrient source: the pulp.”
Q: How do antibiotics work to treat a tooth infection?
A: Infections are caused by rapid bacterial growth. Antibiotics are prescribed to slow down and destroy this bacterial growth, thus destroying the infection. Each antibiotic is engineered for a different purpose. For instance, penicillin prevents the bacteria from building a cell wall, which weakens it. For this reason, the type of antibiotic prescribed will vary based on the type of bacteria causing your infection. Antibiotics come in both oral, topical, and IV forms. Typically, an oral antibiotic, or capsule, is prescribed for a tooth infection since the infection is not topical.
Q: How long before the antibiotics begin to work?
A: The length of time that it will take the medication to start working will depend on the type of medication. There is a wide range of antibiotics available, but in most cases, they will begin to break down bacteria within 24–48 hours and you should see a noticeable difference in your symptoms within 72 hours.
Q: What types of antibiotics are prescribed for tooth infections?
A: Your dentist will try to prescribe the medication that the particular strain of bacteria causing your infection is most reactive to. There are a wide variety of antibiotics available, but some of the most common antibiotics prescribed for tooth infections are penicillin, amoxicillin, and clindamycin. Many people are allergic to these medications. If you are, be sure to tell your dentist so they can suggest an alternate medication.
Q: How long do I need to take them?
A: Your dentist will be able to give you the most accurate information on this based on the type of antibiotic and severity of the infection, but don’t be surprised if it’s a lengthy term. Most antibiotics are taken for at least one week, often twice a day, while other antibiotics may be prescribed for up to three weeks.
Q: Will antibiotics help with the pain associated with a tooth infection?
A: Your infected tooth is likely sensitive and you may even suffer from mild to severe pain and some discomfort. While the antibiotics will help reduce pain by reducing infection and, therefore, inflammation, antibiotics are not meant to be pain relievers. Your dentist may prescribe you a pain medication for a serious toothache, which can be either narcotic or non-narcotic. For mild to moderate pain, you can try taking anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen, or pain relievers, like acetaminophen. Because the tooth infection is likely to be related to a pus-filled abscess, your dentist may want to drain it to relieve pressure. There are other things you can do to reduce pain in an abscessed tooth, like salt rinses, elevating your head while you sleep, and avoiding certain foods and temperatures.
Q: Will antibiotics cure my tooth infection?
A: Antibiotics will begin to deplete the bacteria causing the infection, and often, with the help of your body’s natural antibodies, is able to cure the infection. However, if you have an abscess or other serious dental infection associated with your tooth infection, you may need further dental work to prevent future infections. Because tooth infections are most often associated with an oral abscess, you may need a dental procedure, like a root canal, to fix the problem.
Q: What are the side effects associated with taking antibiotics for tooth infection?
A: Many patients take antibiotics with no negative side effects, but there are some side effects commonly associated with antibiotics, like diarrhea, feeling nauseous or dizzy, and fungal infections like yeast infections. Some side effects that are much less common may include blood clotting, blood disorders, kidney stones, sensitivity to sunlight, and deafness. The potential side effects vary by medication.
Q: I have been taking my antibiotics for 5 of the prescribed 7 days and I feel much better. Should I stop taking them?
A: It is common, and usually expected, to be free of symptoms from your tooth infection before your prescription runs out. However, you should always complete every round of antibiotics in full. It’s likely that even though you aren’t experiencing any symptoms, there is still some lingering bacteria that will begin to grow once the medication has ended. Even if there isn’t, think of the last few days as a preventative measure. You want to take your antibiotics correctly because it is best if they work the first time. The bacteria, if not depleted, will eventually begin to grow resistant to the antibiotic, so it may become less effective over time if the problem is not treated.
Q: When should I be worried about antibiotics?
A: Typically, unless you are allergic, you should have no problem taking the antibiotics your dentist prescribes. However, if you suffer from liver or kidney disorders or are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should inform your dentist. Some antibiotics may affect you differently or be dangerous for your baby, and he or she may choose to go another route.
Antibiotics are a common treatment for tooth infection and are sometimes even given as a preventative measure before oral surgery. If you have other questions about your tooth infection or the antibiotics you were prescribed, you should contact your oral healthcare provider.