Oral Care

The importance of general dental care for infection prevention


February 6, 2023

Dental care preserves your oral health, but it can also prevent serious health complications.

In addition to regularly brushing and flossing, routine dental care includes visiting your dentist twice per year for cleanings, X-rays when needed and thorough exams. These practices are crucial for preventing oral infection and decay and for monitoring and resolving any issues that arise. But these practices are also important for your overall health. They can even be lifesaving.

“Something as relatively simple as an infected tooth, which really can just be a toothache as it starts out, can lead to an infection that gets outside of the local environment of the tooth,” said Dr. Samuel McKenna, a surgeon with Vanderbilt Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

Such an infection can lead to dire outcomes, and that’s why McKenna wants to raise awareness. “Many people, and even health-care professionals, probably don’t have an appreciation for how bad these routine dental problems can end up if they’re allowed to go un untreated,” he said.

Sources of infection

Two main sources of infection can occur. The most common is an infected tooth and the other is periodontal or gum infection.

“An infected tooth starts out with the pulp of the tooth becoming necrotic, essentially dying,” McKenna said. “An infection then develops at the tip of the root of the tooth.” A localized infection can be treated with tooth removal or a root canal. “But if it’s allowed to smolder,” McKenna added, “that infection can erode beyond the apex of the root and get out into those soft tissues.”

Periodontal or gum infections tend to stay more localized. However, they can also lead to serious complications.

Oral infection complications

An infection that spreads to the tissues around the facial region will likely cause pain and other issues. “In really significant cases,” McKenna said, “these infections can get into the chest and into the bloodstream where people become septic and are acutely ill — if not on death’s doorstep when the infection evolves to that extent.”

The concerning situation of an oral infection becoming a systemic one is a problem McKenna sees often. “It’s almost endemic, at least in this part of the country, where there seems to be a fair number of people who don’t have good access to general dental care,” he said.

“It’s almost endemic, at least in this part of the country, where there seems to be a fair number of people who don’t have good access to general dental care.”

Often people will present to the emergency room with a toothache. “Then the next thing they present with is facial swelling and then swelling in their neck, difficulty swallowing, and pain when they swallow,” McKenna added. “At that point, then they really have the full-fledged manifestation of one of these tooth infections that has gotten outside of the local region of the tooth.”

Depending on the situation, someone with a toothache who isn’t presenting with swelling or other severe symptoms will be prescribed antibiotics and discharged, McKenna explained. But, without subsequent dental care, many people will return to the emergency room as the infection progresses into something more serious.

Symptoms of a serious oral infection

“People shouldn’t take a painful tooth lightly,” McKenna said, “especially if there’s some swelling associated with it.” Sometimes infections present without someone having a history of a toothache, but more often a painful tooth is a warning sign.

Red flag symptoms include facial or neck swelling, difficulty or pain with swallowing, and difficulty opening your mouth. If you have these symptoms, consult your dentist or seek medical care right away. And if you have a toothache, schedule a consultation with a dentist as soon as possible.

Young woman laughs with a friend.

Need help?

At any stage of life, it’s important to practice good oral hygiene and visit the dentist regularly. Vanderbilt General Dentistry offers a full range of dental care for adults and children. Starting early helps preserve a healthy smile for a lifetime. Call 615-322-2198 to make an appointment.

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