This myth is quite pervasive on the internet, but I’ve rarely seen it in private practice. The typical scenario is as follows:
A patient, most often in intense pain and with significant swelling, goes to a dentist. The dentist diagnoses the patient as having an infection. He/she then extracts the tooth and often prescribes antibiotics. 1 to 2 days later, the patient is still having some pain and swelling, and then reaches the conclusion that the tooth should not have been pulled. Ultimately, the infection/swelling resolve.
There are many variations to this dental myth, but the net result is the assumption by the patient that the tooth should not have been extracted because it was infected.
What Causes Dental and Oral Infections
There are many different types of dental infections. Some originate in the tooth itself. Others originate in the tissues directly surrounding a tooth. Still others occur on surfaces within the mouth such as the tongue, cheeks, and floor of the mouth. But the vast majority develop first within a tooth and then spread to the surrounding gums and bone.
The above tooth shows a large cavity underneath a crown. The cavity is the source of the infection and is filled with bacteria. Stated another way, the infection first developed within the tooth. With time, it spread to the surrounding gums and bone, resulting in pain and swelling. Immediate extraction was the only option.
Why Infected Teeth Need Immediate Treatment in Nearly all Cases
We’ll take this quote from an Oral Surgery textbook:
“The primary principle of management of teeth infections is to perform surgical drainage and to remove the cause of the infection” (From Contemporary Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery by James Hupp, DMD, MD)
Or, to quote another unnamed surgeon:
“Never let the sun set on pus”
So, what do all these quotes mean? It basically means that surgical intervention is required for tooth infections.
“Surgical intervention” can range from extracting the tooth to draining the pus to other techniques.
Cases When a Tooth Should Not be Extracted
Keep in mind that each and every tooth infection is unique and needs to be evaluated on its own. Factors that a dentist or oral surgeon will consider include the location of the infection, size, consistency (is it a hard swelling or softer), patient’s age, patient’s medications, patient’s medical conditions(s), presence of systemic symptoms (fever, malaise, blood analysis), tooth or teeth involved, previous antibiotic use, and many other factors.
There are some clinicians who believe that immediate extraction should not be done in cases of a very unique type of dental infection called pericoronitis. They recommend surgical drainage instead.
But there are other clinicians and textbooks which recommend immediate extraction in cases of pericoronitis.
Dental Myth Busted
As stated earlier, every tooth infection is different and the recommended treatment is based on the unique qualities of that infection. As we learned earlier, in cases of acute infection, surgical intervention is required. And in nearly all cases, getting the tooth pulled is appropriate. So it is a myth to say “you shouldn’t have an infected tooth pulled.”