Dentist Questions Tooth Abscess

How can an abscessed tooth kill you?

There was a story on the New York Times about a 12-year-old boy who actually died from an untreated tooth abscess. I never realized that these can actually kill someone if not taking care of. How can an abscessed tooth lead to death?

4 Answers

Although rare, this is possible and does happen. An abscessed tooth leads to death because it is an infection. The mouth bacteria don't get along with the rest of the body well. The infection will travel by means of least resistance, and once in the blood stream can travel anywhere in your body. If it takes hold it can lead to death. This is one reason why it is important to have infections treated in a timely manner.
The answer to your question is yes, but it is unusual with today's medical care and antibiotics. It does happen on occasion though, and to answer your question, it can happen when the localized infection around the tooth becomes larger, and infects local blood vessels, that can in turn infect larger organs such as the brain on an upper tooth, and the lower jaw facial planes on lower teeth. Luckily, this is rare, as stated. Note that every individual case differs in anatomy and patient immune response, thus every abscessed tooth should be evaluated by a professional ASAP.
An abscessed tooth can lead to angina Ludwig, meaning there is an infection spreading to the submadibula space, the sublingual space, and the submental space. In that case, you need to go to the ER due to risks of closing airway.