A recent news story about a young truck driver who died after a tooth infection spread to his lungs got me thinking about my own experience with patients of late. Over the past few months I have treated a dramatic increase in the number and severity of dental infections requiring strong antibiotics, root canal therapy, and occasional surgical intervention, sometimes even IV medications in hospital emergency rooms. In every case, one of the signs of infection was swelling of the soft tissues of the face. The clinical term is “facial cellulitis”. One or both eyes may be swollen shut. Body temperature is usually elevated. The facial tissues are red and hot. The swelling is not necessarily confined to the teeth or gums. The entire side of the face may be swollen, from the eyes down to the neck. One look at these patients and it is apparent they are in distress.
Before the advent of antibiotics, dental infections were ranked as the number three cause of death. The infection “dissects” its way through what are called “potential spaces” between muscles, skin, tendons, and ligaments, and quickly reaches the brain, lungs, heart or a combination of these vital organs. When the cardiovascular system is attacked by infection, we say the patient is “septic”. As early as 1973, 96% of infections receiving hospital treatment with antibiotic therapy were susceptible to the Penicillin class of antibiotics. By the 1990’s 96% of hospital based infections were resistant to the penicillins, meaning that other antibiotics had to be used to treat infections. The resulting “suprainfections” occasionally are resistant to all known antibiotics. Every dental infection is life threatening. They can and do get out of control very quickly and should be attended to immediately.
Other symptoms of dental infection may include: sharp or dull pain in the gums, pressure and/or heat sensitivity with a tooth, swelling, exudate (pus), and bleeding in extreme cases.
Keep your immune system healthy, take antibiotics only when necessary, and seek dental or medical care early if you believe you have an infection.