How Long Until a Tooth Infection Kills You? Main Risks

Jun 13, 2024 | 5 min read

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A tooth infection can lead to severe complications and, in rare cases, death if left untreated. Recognizing the risks and symptoms can help you take timely action and maintain your health.

how long until a tooth infection kills you

Can a Tooth Infection Kill You?

Yes, a tooth infection can potentially kill you, although it is very rare with modern medical care. A tooth infection, or dental abscess, occurs when bacteria infect the soft tissue inside the tooth, known as the pulp. This can happen due to untreated tooth decay, an injury to the tooth, or previous dental procedures.

In the past, tooth infections were a significant cause of death. Even in the early 1900s, tooth infections resulted in death in 10 to 40 percent of cases, as mentioned in the NCBI publication

Today, due to advancements in dental hygiene and medical treatments, death from a tooth infection is extremely uncommon. However, if a tooth infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body, such as the jaw, neck, or brain. 

This spread can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening conditions like:

  • sepsis (a severe infection response)
  • Ludwig's angina (a severe infection under the tongue)
  • brain abscesses

Therefore, while it is unlikely that a tooth infection will kill you, the risk exists if the infection is not promptly treated. Early diagnosis and treatment by a dental professional can prevent these severe complications and ensure that a tooth infection does not become life-threatening.

How Quickly Could a Tooth Infection Cause Death?

The progression of the infection varies depending on several factors, including the person's overall health, the severity of the infection, and the timely intervention of medical care.

Here's a detailed timeline and explanation of how quickly a tooth infection could become life-threatening:

  1. Initial Stage (Days 1-3): A tooth infection usually starts as a localized abscess, which is a pocket of pus caused by a bacterial infection. Symptoms include severe toothache, swelling, redness, and sensitivity. At this stage, the infection is generally confined to the tooth and the surrounding gum tissue.
  2. Spread to Surrounding Tissues (Days 4-7): If the infection is not treated, it can spread to the surrounding tissues, including the jawbone (osteomyelitis) and the soft tissues of the face and neck (cellulitis). Symptoms may worsen, with increased pain, swelling, and possibly fever.
  3. Systemic Spread (Weeks 1-3): The infection can enter the bloodstream (septicemia) or spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain (brain abscess) or the chest (mediastinitis). This stage is critical and requires immediate medical intervention. Symptoms of systemic spread include high fever, chills, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, and severe headache.
  4. Life-Threatening Complications (Weeks 2-3 and Beyond): If the infection continues to spread without treatment, it can lead to life-threatening conditions such as sepsis, which is a severe and widespread infection causing organ failure. Death can occur within days to weeks after the infection becomes systemic, particularly if the person has other underlying health issues or a weakened immune system.

Prompt treatment is crucial to prevent these severe outcomes. If you experience symptoms of a tooth infection, seek dental care immediately.

Risk Factors Leading to Complications

Certain factors can increase the likelihood of severe complications from a dental abscess:

  • Older Age: Older adults often have weakened immune systems, making it harder to fight off infections.
  • Diabetes: People with diabetes are more susceptible to infections, including severe tooth infections.
  • Immunocompromised Status: Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as certain medications or illnesses, can increase the risk of complications.
  • Malnourishment: Poor nutrition weakens the body's defenses, making it harder to combat infections.

These risk factors make it even more important to seek dental and medical care promptly. If you fall into any of these categories, taking preventive measures and maintaining good oral hygiene is essential.

Symptoms Indicating the Infection Has Spread

Recognizing the symptoms of a spreading tooth infection early can prevent severe complications. If the infection spreads, you may experience:

  • Fever
  • Swelling in the face, neck, or eyes
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Severe, persistent headache
  • Increased heart rate
  • A general feeling of unwellness (malaise)

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is crucial to seek medical attention immediately. Early intervention can prevent the infection from causing more serious health issues. 

Additionally, using a Symptom Checker can be a helpful online tool to check your symptoms and identify possible causes. But it isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult a healthcare provider for any medical concerns.

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When to Go to the Hospital for a Tooth Infection

Knowing when to seek immediate medical care for a tooth infection can be lifesaving.

Visit a dentist if you notice:

  • Throbbing pain in the affected tooth
  • Red and swollen gums
  • Persistent bad taste in your mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Discoloration of the affected tooth
  • Tooth sensitivity to pressure, hot, or cold

However, some symptoms indicate a more serious condition that requires urgent care. 

Go to an urgent care center or emergency room if:

  • Fever
  • General feeling of unwellness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Swelling around your face, neck, or eyes
  • Inability to open your mouth or jaw
  • Trouble speaking, chewing, or swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid heart rate

Trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, don't hesitate to seek medical care. Even if your symptoms aren't due to a tooth infection, they may indicate another serious health condition that needs immediate attention.

Treatment Options for a Tooth Infection

Treating a tooth infection promptly is crucial to prevent it from spreading and causing severe health issues. Here are the common treatment options:


  • Used to stop the bacterial infection.
  • Can be administered orally or through an IV for more severe infections.
  • It's important to complete the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed.

Root Canal:

  • Removes the infected pulp from inside the tooth.
  • The inside of the tooth is cleaned and sealed.
  • Often followed by placing a crown to restore the tooth's strength and function.

Tooth Extraction:

  • When the tooth cannot be saved, it may need to be removed.
  • Extraction stops the infection from spreading to other areas.
  • Dentists consider this as a last resort after evaluating all other treatment options.


  • A temporary measure where a small incision is made in the gums to drain the abscess.
  • Reduces pain and swelling until further treatment is provided.

Pain Management:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers can help manage the pain until treatment.
  • Follow your dentist's recommendations for pain relief.

Prompt treatment is essential to avoid serious complications. If you suspect a tooth infection, consult a dentist immediately.

Preventing a Tooth Infection

Preventing a tooth infection is easier and less painful than treating one. Here are practical tips to maintain good oral health and prevent infections:Daily Oral Hygiene

Daily Oral Hygiene


  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste.
  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid damaging your gums and enamel.


  • Floss daily to remove plaque and food particles between your teeth where a toothbrush can't reach.
  • Proper flossing helps prevent decay and gum disease.

Reducing Sugar Intake:

  • Limit consumption of sugary foods and drinks, which can contribute to tooth decay.
  • Opt for healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables that are better for your teeth and overall health.

Regular Dental Visits

Routine Check-Ups:

  • Visit your dentist every six months for a professional cleaning and exam.
  • Regular check-ups help catch problems early before they become serious.

Early Detection and Treatment:

  • Early detection of cavities, gum disease, and other issues can prevent them from developing into infections.
  • Your dentist can provide treatments like fluoride applications and sealants to protect your teeth.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Key Takeaways

Modern dental care has significantly reduced the mortality rates from tooth infections, but the potential for severe complications still exists, especially in individuals with certain risk factors. Maintaining good oral hygiene, seeking regular dental check-ups, and addressing dental issues promptly can help prevent infections and protect your overall health.

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